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Half Empty: Courts in Disarray

It was only justice that in the midst of the recent Inquirer series on the folly of justice that I be ordered to appear in the Criminal Justice Center to dispense justice.

It was only justice that in the midst of the recent Inquirer series on the folly of justice that I be ordered to appear in the Criminal Justice Center to dispense justice.

I arrived at the dutiful time of 8:15 and found a seat in the jurors room, bypassing a row of broken ones. The jury officers were infinitely polite and solicitous, so for a little bit I wondered whether I was in the wrong building.

I filled out the questionnaire determining my ability to serve - and waited. I watched a video of judges explaining the questions - and waited. I read the Inquirer series, learning how witnesses are harassed, threatened, treated like chattel when they do appear, in some cases killed - and waited.

After being called, about 60 of us went to a courtroom on the ninth floor - and waited. We read our books - and waited. We fell asleep - and waited. We kibitzed a little bit - and waited. We read more of our books - and waited. We fell asleep again - and waited. We took a 20-minute break - from waiting.

After close to two hours, a court officer announced that the judge, because of a scheduling conflict, was not going to make it to court. We went back down to the first floor, where it was now close to noon. Then we were dismissed.

There was much to be thankful for besides being done with jury duty. Nobody got intimidated. Nobody got killed. Nobody got interminably stuck in an elevator. Nobody had to deal with the Crisco-soaked sleaze of a defense attorney finding a loophole that has nothing to do with justice (they are actually supposed to believe in it), or an overworked prosecutor with a case and no witnesses, or a defendant who knows that if you want to dedicate your life to crime, Philly is the place to be. Nobody ran into District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham patrolling the hallways in Pattonesque military uniform and riding crop. The $9 we each received would be of infinite help in minimizing the size of the small-business loan needed to buy a beer and a hot dog at an Eagles game.

Criminal justice in Philadelphia had achieved what appears to be its most favorite purpose.


I read a lot of newspaper stories. I am rarely moved by them, judge most of them on the basis of how well they were reported or written and whether I should be jealous. But I was deeply disturbed by the Inquirer series "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied." I was disturbed because so many of our institutions - the District Attorney's Office, the defense bar, the courts, City Hall - have somehow made all of us far more ripe to the horror of crime instead of protecting us from it.

I was disturbed by the public officials who pass blame like the offering plate at church. I am disturbed by those who aspire to the lowest common denominator by arguing that all big cities have lousy criminal-justice systems, so why should Philadelphia be any different.

But I think I was disturbed most of all by the frustration of my own impotence, because in a peripheral way I had once played a role in the whole mess.

Twenty-two years ago, two other Inquirer reporters, Dan Biddle and Rick Tulsky, and I earned a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for a six-part series called "Disorder in the Court." It, too, depicted a system in chaos - defense attorneys making campaign contributions to judicial candidates in the city and then getting remarkably favorable results in court after those candidates were elected; defense attorneys making obvious errors in cases that they hoped would then be overturned on appeal because of their calculated incompetence. We wrote about witnesses being hideously treated and unconscionable delays in which judges spent as much as 25 percent of their time doing nothing.

Sound familiar?

For a brief period there was a refreshing public outcry. There were calls for reform, in particular that the ridiculous process of electing judges, so vulnerable to impropriety, be junked in favor of merit selection. The state Supreme Court took over administrative control of the city's courts. Then-Gov. Robert P. Casey wrote a lovely letter congratulating The Inquirer for its series. All the right moves were made. And little of it mattered.

"Disorder in the Court" simply morphed into "Justice Delayed" with findings far more shocking than ours and a system in even more rot - witnesses not simply intimidated, but killed; tens of thousands of fugitives on the street because they know how to work the system; defendants being released on absurd technicalities and then committing crime after crime after crime.

I have lived and worked in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. Each had problems. But none comes as close to the perversity of Philadelphia in working so hard to maintain what does not work.

Abraham is challenging the validity of The Inquirer's analysis showing the city has the worst conviction rate of any big city in the country. That is her right and she would not be a politician if the first dance step weren't to kill the messenger. But I am tired of Abraham's idiotic claim that justice is not done by the numbers.

In the last 15 years, police departments all over the country started doing justice by the numbers, using statistical analysis to find systemic flaws that could be - and were - corrected. Crime rates dropped in big cities across the country. Every business uses numbers to identify problems and correct them. Even the Phillies do it to determine the strengths and weaknesses of players beyond the obvious.

I am tired of Abraham accusing The Inquirer of wanting to ruin her legacy, as though everything else in the series were incidental. No offense, Lynne, but the paper doesn't give one whit about your legacy, and you will have plenty of time to craft it in your memoirs since the notion of your being appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is fanciful.

I am tired of defense attorneys using loopholes that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence, and I wonder how these suckerfish can sleep at night knowing that all they have done is increase the already unconscionable probability that an innocent citizen will be robbed or even killed.

It is a tired and overused cliche - the more things change they more they stay the same. Forgive me. But given the debacle of the justice system, even that presumption in Philadelphia doesn't apply. Because when there is no sincere impetus to change beyond spin and perception, things don't stay the same.

They only get worse.