Reformers Seek Overhaul Of Philadelphia Preliminary Hearings


In suburban Philadelphia’s King of Prussia, Judge William Maruszczak’s courtroom is hardly the stuff of Law & Order. Often, there isn’t a prosecutor. Police officers put on criminal cases, outlining only the barest details to persuade the judge to hold a defendant for trial. Victims seldom take the stand. Defense lawyers ask few questions. No stenographer keeps a record. Hearings conclude within minutes. “We move ’em in. We move ’em out,” Maruszczak tell the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We don’t mess around.”

If Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and the state Supreme Court have their way, this no-nonsense approach will be the future in Philadelphia Municipal Court. Williams and two high court justices want to transform Municipal Court, the court at the heart of the breakdown of the Philadelphia criminal justice system. They are pushing for change in response to an Inquirer series that depicted a court system in crisis, plagued by low conviction rates and the dismissal of thousands of cases each year. A key reason cases fail is that Philadelphia judges have allowed preliminary hearings to evolve into complex proceedings with often lengthy testimony. This permits defense lawyers to dig deeply into the prosecution’s evidence and to try dismissing a case if a victim or a police officer fails to appear. “That’s not the purpose of a preliminary hearing,” said state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery. “It’s strictly prima facie evidence – the lowest rung on the evidentiary ladder.” In other words, the standard should simply be whether a defendant is more likely than not to have committed the crime.

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