The state Supreme Court's adoption of allowing grand jurors to issue indictments against a person accused of witness intimidation won't change criminal-law practice very much, except in a minority of cases, practitioners say.
In six months, Pennsylvania prosecutors will have the authority for the first time in decades to use grand juries to determine whether a person should go to trial, rather than hold a preliminary hearing. But grand juries only can be used "in the narrowly defined circumstances of cases in which witness intimidation has occurred, is occurring, or is likely to occur," according to the Supreme Court's Criminal Procedural Rules Committee final report.
"The grand jury's vote to indict is the functional equivalent of holding the defendant for court following a preliminary hearing," the report said.
"I don't think it'll be a tidal wave of cases," said Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, the prosecutor in Pennsylvania's third most populous judicial district. "It's meant to be used selectively and carefully in those cases where there's a problem with witness intimidation, or where there is the potential for witness intimidation to occur."
Ms. Ferman was chairwoman of the Criminal Procedural Rules Committee when the committee considered the rule change, but she spoke in her role as district attorney.
"I don't think we're going to see a massive amount of cases brought forward before an indicting grand jury," said Michael J. Engle, a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney who is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said the original proposal to restore so-called "indicting grand juries" only in the context of witness intimidation morphed into a proposal to restore indicting grand juries for all cases. But the court opted to stick with the original form, Justice Castille said.
For jurisdictions like Philadelphia County with serious issues of witness intimidation, the hope is that the indicting grand jury will make a difference "to protect witnesses from potential attempts to influence them or [from] fatal harm to the witnesses," Justice Castille said. "You read about it all the time, about witnesses being murdered or harassed or changing their stories."
Reinstituting indicting grand juries in the context of witness intimidation is likely designed to be a foothold to bring back indicting grand juries in other types of cases, Mr. Engle said. There seems to be a movement afoot to see "that a preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania is done away with," he said.
Judicial districts that intend to use the indicting grand jury must petition the Supreme Court for approval. Prosecutors must petition trial judges and the trial judges must petition the Supreme Court, John Delaney, chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney Office's juvenile unit, said. If the motion is granted, the motion will be sealed. The case also must be submitted to the grand jury within 21 days of the judge's order. The rule changes will allow a sitting investigating grand jury to also sit as an indicting grand jury.