The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted approval for prosecutors to use secret grand juries to indict suspects – a step justices say would provide law enforcement with a crucial tool to safeguard frightened witnesses, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The court’s unanimous adoption of the policy was directed at Philadelphia, where a “no snitching” culture and ugly threats in courtrooms and on the street have created a toxic atmosphere for victims and witnesses.
Under the change, witnesses would testify behind closed doors before 23-member grand juries, which would then have the power to indict. This would spare the witnesses from having to testify in public in preliminary hearings, though they would still have to testify publicly during a trial. Chief Justice Ronald Castille said the change was needed to deal with an entrenched problem of witness intimidation that has grown worse since he served as Philadelphia’s district attorney nearly a quarter-century ago. For Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery, the policy is the latest move to shake up the criminal-justice system after a 2009 Inquirer investigative series that cast a spotlight on the fear infecting Philadelphia criminal courtrooms.