Two pillars of Pennsylvania's criminal justice system - the right to a preliminary hearing and access to online court records - are undergoing a substantial makeover.

The state Supreme Court is allowing county prosecutors the option of using secret grand juries to determine whether a person accused of a crime should go to trial rather than holding a preliminary hearing before a magisterial district judge.

But some experts worry that using grand juries instead of holding public hearings could make court proceedings less transparent.

"A preliminary hearing is public from start to finish," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. "You may not even know there is a grand jury."

The recent change in rules would allow a county prosecutor to ask a county president judge for permission to use grand jurors to issue indictments against a person accused of a crime, but only in cases involving witness intimidation.

Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the rule change was spurred by a rash of criminal cases in Philadelphia where witnesses were afraid to testify in court.

"Witness intimidation is obviously something that is not just limited to Philadelphia," Heinz said.

Grand juries were used by county prosecutors in local court jurisdictions for nearly 20 years, although they were abolished in favor of the preliminary hearing presided over by a magistrate.

Like a 12-member trial jury, grand juries are chosen from a pool of citizens, though they meet behind closed doors and approve indictments that in essence validate police charges rather than issue verdicts after hearing testimony in open court before a Court of Common Pleas judge.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts argues that individuals accused of a crime still get a chance to face their accusers at trial.

Ernie Preate, a former state attorney general and Lackawanna County district attorney, said the change could have positive and negative repercussions.

"It could be abused, and it could trample the rights of the defendant," Preate said. "Or, it could be used legitimately to have witnesses come forward who are truly afraid."

Efforts to reach Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola and First Assistant District Attorney Gene Talerico were unsuccessful.

Also, the AOPC decided to limit online accessibility to magisterial district court records.

Certain electronic records, including summary cases, will only be available publicly online for three years; criminal and civil records and landlord tenant disputes will be only available for seven years.

Before, there was no established timetable for retention of electronic records online.

Contact the writer: smcconnell@timesshamrock.com @smconnellTT on Twitter