Jon Campisi Jun. 25, 2012, 7:56am

Pennsylvania’s highest court approved a move late last week that supporters say will cut

down on witness intimidation, particularly in crime-plagued Philadelphia – the justices OK’d the use of indicting grand juries in criminal prosecutions.

The state Supreme Court unanimously approved using secret grand juries to indict criminal suspects in a June 21 rules change order.

The move allows the use of indicting grand juries statewide, but is being viewed as particularly beneficial in Philadelphia, which has long experienced problems with witness intimidation in criminal cases, something that has severely hampered prosecutions.

Under the new regulations, witnesses could testify behind closed doors as grand jury proceedings are done in secrecy.

They would still likely have to testify in public during trial, but no longer would a reluctance on the part of witnesses to testify during the preliminary hearing stage be reason to prevent criminal charges from being brought against a suspect.

Unlike in the past, the grand juries would now have the power to indict criminal defendants, meaning many cases could move forward that could have in the past been negatively affected by witness non-cooperation.

These grand juries were in use in the past, but the practice was abolished by the high court in the late 1970s, according to media reports. Since that time, criminal defendants would first be held for trial at a preliminary hearing and then be indicted.

Investigating grand juries have been, and continue to be, used in Pennsylvania since the abolishing of the indicting grand juries, but the former would only be allowed to do just that – investigate possible criminal activity, and then file “presentments.” They could not officially levy charges. (This was the process in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal).

In comments to the Philadelphia Inquirer Friday, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams hailed the move as a step in the right direction.

“This is very significant,” Williams was quoted as saying in the paper. “The reason why this is so important is that in almost every homicide case in Philadelphia, in almost every nonfatal shooting in Philadelphia, there is witness intimidation.”

The return of indicting grand juries came at the urging of the Supreme Court’s Rules Committee, which is an advisory board to the high court, according to local news reports.

In a statement to the Inquirer, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille brushed aside contentions that the move could violate a constitutional right of defendants to confront their accusers.

“There is absolutely no right of confrontation at the preliminary hearing,” Castille told the newspaper. “It’s only at trial.”

The rules change goes into effect immediately.

More News