Defenders decry new court testimony rules

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s new rules on witness and victim testimony are prompting cheers from local prosecutors – and jeers from public defenders.

In an effort to crack down on witness intimidation, the State Supreme Court is changing the rules for hearsay testimony at trials.  Soon police will be able to stand in for victims and witnesses to testify at preliminary hearings in municipal court.

The idea is to spare witnesses unnecessary court appearances and reduce the chance of intimidation.  They would still have to testify at trial.

Public defenders say the change will allow unfounded accusations to go unchallenged until the actual trial.  In addition, the rule’s emphasis on burglary and other theft cases is misguided, according to Assistant Philadelphia Public Defender Bradley Bridge.

“Those are not crimes, typically, where there is any sort of witness intimidation,” Bridge said.  “So we’re not talking about robberies, we’re not talking about rapes, we’re not talking about murders, where theoretically there’s a greater emphasis or possibility for witness intimidation.  You’re talking property crimes.”

Montgomery County Stephen Heckman agrees, saying some testimony should not come second hand through an officer–even at a preliminary hearing.

“If it’s someone that’s charged with breaking into Mr. Jones’ house and Mr. Jones would only testify that he didn’t give him permission to do so and we want to avoid Mr. Jones coming in, that’s one thing,” said Heckman.  “But if it’s Mr. Jones is an eye witness to the guy who broke into his house, then it’s inconceivable to me that Mr. Jones should not be a witness,” says Heckman.

Both lawyers say their offices could file challenges when the law takes effect in a few weeks.

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