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Philly Fugitives Walk Free as Courts Watch

This is one of our editors' picks from our ongoing roundup of Investigations Elsewhere.

Court insiders call it a "Philadelphia special": a case that falls apart after both witnesses and cops fail to show up at trial. The nickname is telling, according to a four-part investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer that began on Sunday. Looking at 31,000 criminal court cases filed in Philadelphia in 2006, 2007 and 2008, the paper found pervasive dysfunction within the city's court system, which "fails to punish violent crimes, dismisses thousands of cases without any decision on the merits, and has a growing pool of 47,000 fugitives."

Those findings have already prompted Sen. Arlen Specter to pledge an investigation by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs.

Despite being the most violent of the 10 largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia has the lowest felony-conviction rate among large urban counties. The reason, according to the Inquirer, can be traced to a host of problems within the court system: witness intimidation, a broken bail system, and simple logistical problems like repeatedly failing to move inmates to courtrooms (both defendants and witnesses) and double-booking cops for different hearings.

Lynne M. Abraham, the district attorney for the last 18 years, disputed the conviction rates used in the report. "You can't do justice by numbers," she said, adding, "I'm not going to railroad anybody or put my thumb on the scale to make me look good in the Inquirer or in the public."

Throughout her tenure, Abraham has made homicide cases her focus, and, in fact, those are an exception to the paper’s findings: Prosecution rates for murder cases in Philly actually exceeded the national average in 2006 and 2007.