By Amaris Elliott-Engel
Special to the Legal
The state Supreme Court has approved the use of hearsay evidence during preliminary hearings to establish an element of any property crime offense requiring proof of ownership of property, or proof of the impermissible use, damage to, or the value of property.
At the same press conference, the court announced the release of the state's first benchbook on witness intimidation.
State Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery said during a press conference today on the rule change to Rule 542 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure that "the Supreme Court decided we were going to make a statewide rule that would codify the case law we currently have on the books and ensure in Philadelphia County that non-eyewitness victims of crime will not have to show up at preliminary hearings any more."
Non-eyewitness victims of crime will still have to appear for trials, McCaffery said.
The rule change will eliminate "only ownership, non-permission testimony," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said. No longer requiring property owners, who were not direct witnesses to crimes, to testify during Philadelphia preliminary hearings will prevent the phenomenon of property crime victims coming in as "willing participants" and leaving as "very frustrated, bitter people," Williams said.
The rule change was issued on the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Court's web site a half hour before the press conference.
Other rule changes, such as the establishment of indicting grand juries, are being considered by the Supreme Court Criminal Procedural Rules Committee, McCaffery said.
Also announced today was the release of the state's first benchbook on witness intimidation. The benchbook is designed to aid judges in preventing their public courtrooms from becoming arenas of intimidation, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes said.
"'Snitches get stitches,' 'stop snitching'; that is just absolutely contrary to everything that is American," Hughes said. "In America, we are raised to believe that the truth is our friend."
Hughes, a homicide judge, worked with Walter M. Phillips Jr., chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, PCCD Executive Director Michael Kane, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judges Glenn Bronson and Gwendolyn Bright, Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney John Delaney, and defense attornies Michael Schwartz and Benjamin Eichel of Pepper Hamilton and Stuart Suss, a former senior deputy state attorney general to prepare the benchbook. Suss did the yeoman's work in drafting the benchbook.
Every judge in Pennsylvania will receive the benchbook, Hughes said.