People accused of serious crimes in Philadelphia escape conviction with “stunning regularity,” going free on all charges in nearly two-thirds of violent crime cases, a newspaper said Sunday.
The Philadelphia Inquirer said federal figures indicate the city has the lowest felony conviction rate among the nation's large urban counties. FBI figures also indicate that it had the highest violent-crime rate among the nation's 10 largest cities, with the highest rate for murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, the paper said.
Although Philadelphia prosecutors win more murder convictions than the national average--82 percent compared to 71 percent--other violent felonies are a different story, the paper said. Only one in 10 people charged with gun assaults, two of 10 accused of armed robberies, and one in four accused of rape are convicted of those charges, the paper said.
In addition, people charged with assaults with a gun escape conviction more often than those accused of fist or knife assaults, and almost half of the people arrested for possession of illegal handguns go free, the paper said.
The Inquirer said its in-depth review of court cases and interviews with judges, prosecutors, police, defense lawyers, criminologists, victims, and defendants suggested that one factor is an exploding caseload that pressures judges to dispose of cases.
Of 10,000 defendants freed after being charged with violent crimes in 2006 and 2007, 92 percent had their cases dropped or dismissed while only 8 percent (a total of 788) were acquitted at trial, the paper said.
The Inquirer also cited an “epidemic” of witness intimidation. Prosecutors charge more than 300 people a year with that crime, and at least 13 witnesses or their families have been killed in the city over the last decade, the paper said.
Lynne M. Abraham, who will step down next month after 18 years as district attorney, disputed the federal figures on the city's conviction rate and also rejected the paper's statistical analysis.
Court administrators also said they were skeptical about the finding about the city's conviction rate.
“You can make those numbers say anything you want,” she told the newspaper.
Abraham said any prosecutor could easily boost conviction rates by refusing to take on difficult cases or giving criminals favorable deals in return for guilty pleas.
Abraham's aides said that, for example, the definition of a felony in Pennsylvania differs from that in other states. In some of the other jurisdictions, the felony caseloads included property crimes that are not classified as felonies in Pennsylvania, which may have skewed the conclusions, they said.
D. Webster Keogh, administrative judge of Common Pleas Court, said he had no position on the analysis. He said court system was supposed to fairly decide each case, not grade itself on convictions and non-convictions.