KILLADELPHIA: Dead Men Tell No Tales


INQUIRER: Martin Thomas looked at the flier and blanched. “Don’t stand next to this man. You might get shot.” The threat was scribbled on a copy of his signed statement to police, implicating a man in a murder. Thomas, then 20, had revealed a buried cache of weapons and named one of the gunmen who killed a man at 22d and Somerset on a summer night. Now, there were his words to detectives, posted on the wall of a Chinese restaurant in North Philadelphia for all to see. Panicked, Thomas fled, flagged down a police car, and told the officers he feared for his life. Police and prosecutors, who described Thomas’ flight from the restaurant, said he had every reason to be frightened. Another witness in the murder case, a 17-year-old, had been killed 10 days after testifying at a preliminary hearing. They said Thomas worried that he could be next. Witness intimidation pervades the Philadelphia criminal courts, increasingly extracting a heavy toll in no-show witnesses, recanted testimony – and witness_kill.jpgcollapsed cases. “It’s endemic. People are frightened to death,” said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham. “We’ve had witness after witness intimidated, threatened, frightened.” And the city cannot guarantee their protection. “That fear, that’s real,” said Jamie Egan, a former city prosecutor. “When people would ask me if I could guarantee their safety, I would say, ‘Unfortunately, I cannot.’ ” Abraham has long fought for more money to protect and relocate witnesses in criminal cases. For 15 years, she has repeatedly complained, to no avail, that the city’s program was underfunded and failing to meet a crucial need. Local funding for witness relocation is a fraction of the spending in the vaunted federal witness-protection program. Efforts to pump city money into the local program have failed year after year. MORE

RELATED: U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter said yesterday that a Senate subcommittee would conduct a preliminary inquiry into a report in The Inquirer that the Philadelphia courts are in crisis – plagued by low conviction rates, widespread witness fear, a massive number of fugitives, and the early dismissals of thousands of cases. “It’s a very serious situation,” Specter said yesterday. “I decided I should show an immediate response.” The Democratic senator said he was alarmed by the newspaper’s findings that the court system fails to punish violent crimes, dismisses thousands of cases without any decision on the merits, and has a growing pool of 47,000 fugitives. “When the allegation is made that so many violent criminals are on the loose, it threatens the entire region,” Specter said. MORE

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