Serving her city

Assistant D.A. Jacqueline Coelho says her priority as a public servant is to correct injustice.

  • Fighting for justice: Jacqueline Coelho officially began her new job on Nov. 4. She brings 17 years of experience into her new role, mostly as a trial attorney handling homicide cases and other violent crimes.

  • Leading lady: Jacqueline Coelho, a Northeast native and St. Hubert High School graduate, was appointed deputy chief of the district attorney’s Northeast Division last month. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Most people in North­east Phil­adelphia prob­ably don’t know much about As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Jac­queline Coelho, un­less they’ve been the vic­tim of a vi­ol­ent crime or the re­l­at­ive of a murder vic­tim.

But folks in this part of the city should be see­ing a lot of Coelho in the months and years to come. Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Wil­li­ams ap­poin­ted the vet­er­an pro­sec­utor last month to serve as deputy bur­eau chief of his of­fice’s North­east Di­vi­sion. In that role, Coelho will work closely with bur­eau chief Mark Gilson as the D.A.’s li­ais­ons with the North­east.

Coelho re­placed Melissa Fran­cis, who ac­cep­ted a po­s­i­tion as chief of the Dan­ger­ous Drug Of­fend­ers Unit, which fo­cuses on bring­ing vi­ol­ent drug deal­ers to justice. Coelho brings 17 years of ex­per­i­ence in­to her new job, mostly as a tri­al at­tor­ney hand­ling hom­icide cases and oth­er vi­ol­ent crimes. Fur­ther­more, the 1989 St. Hubert High School for Girls gradu­ate has a deep per­son­al in­terest in the com­munity.

“The mis­sion of the dis­trict at­tor­ney has been to be ac­cess­ible to the com­munity. That’s something I’m look­ing for­ward to be­ing part of,” said Coelho, who began her new job on Nov. 4. “I’m def­in­itely from the North­east and that’s a part of me. I’m look­ing for­ward to main­tain­ing a safe com­munity there. I want all of Phil­adelphia to be safe.”

Pub­lic ser­vice has been her goal since her days walk­ing the halls of St. Hubert. After gradu­ation, she earned a bach­el­or’s de­gree in eco­nom­ics from La Salle Uni­versity and a law de­gree from Temple. The D.A.’s Of­fice hired her right out of law school.

“I knew I wanted to be a pro­sec­utor,” she said. “I went to col­lege know­ing I wanted to be a pro­sec­utor and also law school. I al­ways really wanted to be of help to people, to be of ser­vice and to right the wrongs of in­justice.”

Coelho in­terned with the D.A.’s Of­fice in sum­mer 1995 then re­turned full-time after gradu­at­ing from Temple Law. Like most young as­sist­ant D.A.s, she began her ca­reer in the Mu­ni­cip­al Court Unit, hand­ling pre­lim­in­ary hear­ings and tri­als for mis­de­mean­or cases. Her next as­sign­ment was in the Ju­ven­ile Court Unit, where she spent much of her time in “B Court” pro­sec­ut­ing adults who vic­tim­ize chil­dren. Sexu­al ab­use and phys­ic­al ab­use cases were com­mon.

Her en­su­ing as­sign­ments in­cluded the Felony Waivers Unit (hand­ling non­jury felony tri­als), as well as the Fam­ily Vi­ol­ence and Sexu­al As­sault Unit. From May 2000 un­til Novem­ber 2004, she served in the Ma­jor Tri­als unit.

Coelho next worked in the Hom­icide Unit for eight years un­til last Novem­ber when she be­came as­sist­ant chief of the D.A.’s Char­ging Unit. In that ad­min­is­trat­ive role, she su­per­vised cases re­ferred to the state’s newly formed in­dict­ing grand jur­ies.

In June 2012, the Pennsylvania Su­preme Court re­stored in­dict­ment power (that is, the power to bring crim­in­al charges against de­fend­ants) to state grand jur­ies for the first time since the 1970s. As a res­ult, pro­sec­utors can opt to fore­go a pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing in fa­vor of a grand jury in­dict­ment in se­lec­ted cases.

Wil­li­ams had ad­voc­ated strongly for the meas­ure be­cause grand jur­ies al­low pro­sec­utors to call re­luct­ant wit­nesses to testi­fy in closed courtrooms, rather than for­cing them to testi­fy pub­licly at pre­lim­in­ary hear­ings with de­fend­ants, their fam­il­ies and their friends present.

Re­luct­ant wit­nesses still must testi­fy pub­licly in those cases that go to tri­al, but the hope is that few­er wit­nesses will back out at the early stages due to fear or in­tim­id­a­tion.

Coelho re­tained many of her hom­icide cases while work­ing in the char­ging unit. She re­cently made head­lines as the lead pro­sec­utor in the vehicu­lar hom­icide of Phil­adelphia Po­lice Of­ficer Bri­an Lorenzo. On the eve of tri­al and fa­cing over­whelm­ing evid­ence against him, the de­fend­ant in the case pleaded guilty to murder and hom­icide by vehicle while DUI. At sen­ten­cing, a judge ordered him to serve 10 to 20 years in pris­on, fol­lowed by 10 years pro­ba­tion.

Throughout her ca­reer, Coelho has been the lead pro­sec­utor in more than 60 jury tri­als. Typ­ic­ally, those tri­als can last from a few days to sev­er­al weeks.

“Jack­ie is a big city hom­icide pro­sec­utor with ex­per­i­ence hand­ling the most dif­fi­cult and vi­ol­ent cases the city has,” said Gilson, who worked along­side Coelho in the Hom­icide Unit for many years. “She has a lot of re­spect in the po­lice de­part­ment, in the D.A.’s of­fice and at the Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter.”

Hav­ing as­sist­ant D.A.s de­vel­op strong work­ing re­la­tion­ships with loc­al po­lice as well as com­munity lead­ers is a key com­pon­ent of the geo­graphy-based pro­sec­u­tion sys­tem in­stalled by Wil­li­ams shortly after his in­stall­a­tion as D.A. in Janu­ary 2010.

The goal is for pro­sec­utors to learn the unique char­ac­ter­ist­ics of the neigh­bor­hoods that they cov­er and ex­change in­form­a­tion about crime trends and in­di­vidu­al crim­in­als with the of­ficers who patrol those areas.

“There seems to be a very open line of com­mu­nic­a­tion,” Coelho said. “And when you get a case, it seems like you can speak to the (po­lice) of­ficers on the ground floor.”

“It al­lows us to fo­cus on a smal­ler area,” Gilson said of the sys­tem. “We get to know the po­lice, the play­ers and the com­munity stake­hold­ers.”

The set-up also al­lows the pub­lic to have their say. Cit­izens can con­tact the D.A.’s of­fice about spe­cif­ic crime is­sues by send­ing an email to

Coelho hopes to share her ex­tens­ive first-hand know­ledge about try­ing cases with her less ex­per­i­enced col­leagues, which would mean that more crooks in the North­east will be brought to justice.

“I def­in­itely wanted to get back in­to the tri­al di­vi­sions and su­per­vise (pro­sec­utors) in tri­al work to help them be­come bet­ter tri­al at­tor­neys,” she said. ••

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