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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. ••