Witness intimidation is common in cases of violent crime, especially in tight-knit Philadelphia neighborhoods where people spend their entire lives surrounded by the same faces, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But to have a cooperating witness killed? That's uncommon, according to prosecutors.
After two witnesses were killed in Philadelphia the district attorney sought help from the state.
In January 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court began allowing criminal cases to be brought before an indicting grand jury instead of taking the standard path of publicly accessible hearings.
Since that alternative was introduced, the D.A.'s office has used it in more than 1,000 cases, according to Deputy District Attorney John Delaney, who supervises the office's trial division, including the homicide unit.
"It's an important tool for us to help reluctant witnesses who have been intimidated, or who live where there has been intimidation pervasive in the community, to take the first step of cooperation," he said.
When a case is brought before a grand jury, the prosecution's witnesses testify without cross-examination from a defense attorney. In fact, the defendant and attorney aren't even present during the testimony.
"Witness intimidation is something that we're incredibly concerned about," Delaney said. "Is it something we have to guard against and be prudent about? Of course."
And now, because of the changes allowed by the high court, he said, "it's an exceedingly rare event for a witness to be harmed for cooperating with police or the prosecution."
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Sherri Rae Rasmussen 2/7/1957 - 2/24/1986
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