By Tony Romeo

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CBS) – A state Supreme Court rule change means that, as of later this month, Philadelphia will be able to use grand juries instead of preliminary hearings when prosecuting some felony cases, a tool the DA’s office believes will greatly reduce fears over witness intimidation.

Right now, terrified witnesses are required to appear in open court to testify at preliminary hearings.

Laurie Malone, Philadelphia Deputy DA in the Pre-Trial Division says the rule change (effective Tuesday of next week) means the DA’s office can instead have witnesses testify in secret before grand juries to establish whether there is enough evidence to bring a suspect to trial in felony cases where witness intimidation is a concern.

“We will do what we need to do to make sure that their identity remains a secret, but we still need to seek justice and make sure that the offender who committed the crime is brought to trial.”

Philadelphia is the first county in the region to receive state Supreme Court approval to use grand juries this way.

Malone says, “To convince the public, convince these witnesses – some witnesses who have a rightful fear of the system – that we are here to protect them through the process.”

To start, the Philadelphia DA’s office expects to use the grand juries in about 1,000 of the 24,000 or so felony cases it handles every year.

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