Nearly a dozen Pittsburgh state reps condemn DA Zappala’s actions against Black attorney who criticized the DA’s office | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Nearly a dozen Pittsburgh state reps condemn DA Zappala’s actions against Black attorney who criticized the DA’s office

click to enlarge Nearly a dozen Pittsburgh state reps condemn DA Zappala’s actions against Black attorney who criticized the DA’s office
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Stephen Zappala
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala has faced significant fallout for an email he sent in May to his deputy prosecutors forbidding them from offering any plea deals to the clients of a well-known Black lawyer who five days prior criticized Zappala’s office for being “systematically racist.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and a state Supreme Court disciplinary board to review Zappala’s actions, adding that they threatened the lawyer’s free speech rights. Several leaders have condemned Zappala, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, and six politicians within Allegheny County have called on Zappala to resign or be removed from office. Allegheny County Judge David R. Cashman halted the administration of plea agreements because of Zappala’s plea deal ban and called the policy “fundamentally wrong.”

And now Zappala is facing even more criticism from more elected officials in Allegheny County. On Fri., June 4, nearly a dozen state representatives are calling on Zappala to reverse the plea deal ban, formally apologize, and agree to an investigation by a separate prosecutor.

On May 13, attorney Milton Raiford, a well known Black lawyer, made comments in an Allegheny County courtroom and showcased frustrations with what Raiford described as systemic racism in the county. During a long speech he asked to be an on-the-court record, Raiford said he is disheartened that Zappala and other judicial leaders didn’t make any comments about racial justice during last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, and called the DA’s office “systematically racist.” According to TribLive, Raiford added that he believed his clients of color were offered worse plea deals because of their race.

Five days later on May 18, Zappala emailed his deputy prosecutors, calling Raiford’s conduct “unprofessional” and a “convoluted critical diatribe.” Zappala’s email then added that “no plea offers are to be made” concerning Raiford and his clients and that “withdrawal of any charges must be approved by the front office.”

A letter was sent to Zappala’s office by state Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-North Side), who is also an attorney. It condemned Zappala’s actions and requested that he reverse the plea deal ban, open the DA’s office to review by a special prosecutor, and formally apologize for the actions. She was joined by 10 other state representatives, all Democrats, who serve districts in Allegheny County. Zappala is also a Democrat.

Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham University, told TribLive that a public apology from Zappala would likely quell the controversy surrounding his actions, and likely lessen discipline against him. On June 3, WESA reported how Zappala doubled down on his actions.

Kinkead, who has called on Zappala to resign or be removed, had additional strong words about Zappala’s actions.

“It is undisputed that our criminal justice system has real, systemic and systematic issues of racism and Allegheny County is far from immune. DA Stephen Zappala’s decision not to address these issues but instead to instruct his staff not to offer plea deals to attorney Milton Raiford’s clients after he voiced concerns about these issues betrays public trust in their ability to receive equal justice in Allegheny County, not to mention violating attorney Raiford’s free speech rights,” said Kinkead in a press release. “To potentially punish clients because of the statements their attorney made is beyond reprehensible and must be addressed immediately. This latest action raises additional concerns as to how the district attorney’s office has conducted its business, notably in how it has treated clients of other attorneys, including those with whom DA Zappala may have disagreed, now or in the past.”

Other elected officials signing on to Kinkead’s letter include state Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-West View) and state Reps. Austin Davis (D-McKeesport), Sara Innamorato (D-Lawrenceville), Summer Lee (D-Swissvale), Dan Deasy (D-West End), Jessica Benham (D-South Side), Nick Pisciottano (D-Dravosburg), Brandon Markosek (D-Monroeville), Jake Wheatley (D-Hill District), and Ed Gainey (D-Lincoln-Lemington), who is also the Democratic nominee for Pittsburgh mayor.

“District attorneys are among the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system,” read the letter. “That power can be used to pursue justice or to deny it. Your policy and your actions have put you squarely in the latter category. We demand that you take corrective action immediately.”