Yesterday was the first day of “zone court,” which advocates say will do much to drive up Philadelphia’s abysmal conviction rate, reduce witness fear, and help ensure that police witnesses do not miss hearings, says the Philadelphia Inquirer. When victims and witnesses arrived at Philadelphia’s main courthouse, they were greeted by representatives of the District Attorney’s Office and steered to a dedicated line, separate from defendants.
“We’re trying to give that personal touch,” said Tami Levin of the office’s Victim/Witness Services Unit. “It makes a difference.” The day also saw a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice patrolling the courthouse. Seamus McCaffery chastised somone for trying to sneak a smoke in a stairwell. The new setup, pushed by District Attorney Seth Williams, is the most dramatic shake-up at the courts since the Criminal Justice Center was opened 15 years ago. Criminal cases are now divided along geographic lines on six dedicated floors, and all preliminary hearings are held at the main courthouse. Witnesses, especially police, merely go from courtroom to courtroom to testify, rather than traveling to scattered sites across Philadelphia to give evidence in police districts. A veteran police officer had watched cases die because he had to choose among competing subpoenas, sometimes as many as five. “You can’t be in a million places at once,” said the officer. “Absolutely, cases die.”