Philly police probe website targeting witnesses of crimes
Police believe a teen is behind an Instagram account that exposes witnesses of crimes, referring to them as 'rats'
By Mike Newall, Aubrey Whelan, and Craig R. McCoy
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia police have identified a 17-year-old who they believe is behind an anonymous Instagram page that for months identified witnesses in violent crimes across the city in an effort to "expose rats," law enforcement sources said Friday.
The sources did not identify the teenager, but suspect he has outed more than 30 city witnesses in dozens of cases on an Instagram account called rats215.
Before it was shut down Thursday night, the account regularly posted photos, police statements and witness testimony on the popular photo-sharing website.
"It is, in my opinion, witness intimidation," Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said in an interview Friday. "It's flat-out wrong. And [the account holder] could be criminally responsible for intimidating witnesses, if that's the case."
Many of the documents on the page are not public records, raising questions about where the account holder obtained them.
That's a question officials are still trying to answer as a warrant was being prepared Friday night for the 17-year-old's arrest.
Bradley S. Bridge, a senior attorney at the city public defender's office, said his office's policy is to provide witness statements to clients as long as they request the material in writing.
While the identification of witnesses is redacted from public records, attorneys can give defendants statements that include the names of witnesses, Bridge said. That, he said, is because the accused have a constitutional right to confront witnesses who testify against them.
Sometimes these statements make it back to the street, a phenomenon that police say dates back years.
"This has always been prevalent in neighborhoods — this paperwork out there flowing," said Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel.
But now social media allows criminals to "go beyond the block," spreading witness statements — their "paperwork" — to untold numbers of Internet users, Bethel said.
While police are still investigating the source of the documents posted on rats215, one made it out of the courthouse from a secret grand jury proceeding -- which was designed to be a bulwark against rampant witness intimidation in city courts.
That case involved a 2012 attempted shooting in which a 19-year-old Southwest Philadelphia man told police he was targeted because he testified in an earlier homicide case.
One official with knowledge of the case said the documents were made public after a "string of errors" on the part of both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The source said a prosecutor didn't realize material from that case was considered secret grand jury material — which doesn't have to be turned over to defense attorneys until two months before a trial.
The prosecutor instead turned documents over several months early, the source said.
Then, the source said, the public defender appointed in the case wrongly believed he could share those documents with his client.
It's still unclear how the documents made their way onto rats215.
None of those inadvertent errors, the source stressed, excuses the actions of whoever posted the documents on Instagram account.
Bridge, of the public defender's office, said his office will investigate "to determine if anything that our office did was inappropriate."
Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's office, said she could not comment on the investigation into the account.
Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart, the chief supervising judge of Philadelphia's indicting grand jury program, said about 600 cases have been presented to indicting grand juries since the program began in 2012, and this is the first instance of evidence leaving the secret proceedings.
"I don't want the public to get the idea that this is a leaking ship," Minehart said. "The District Attorney's office is doing their job and monitoring the process. Something slipped through, and now we have to tighten the ship."
Walter M. Phillips, Jr., the chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and a key advocate for indicting grand juries, said leaks are "unfortunate" but not unexpected.
"Nothing is totally foolproof in this world," he said.
But those who breach grand jury secrecy can face contempt of court charges, he said.
Everett Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, said the city is taking all the cases posted on rats215 "extremely seriously."
"We are investigating this account and the people we find on this account," he said, "and we will do whatever we can to bring to justice those seeking to do harm to witnesses or undermine our criminal justice system."
The mother of one young man whose statements were posted on rats215 said her son learned he'd been outed this summer "on that snitching site," but insisted neither she nor he was worried.
"People," she said, "gonna talk and do what they want."
Copyright 2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer