Pittsburgh politicians call on DA Stephen Zappala to be removed or resign from office | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh politicians call on DA Stephen Zappala to be removed or resign from office

Calls come following a report that Zappala is denying plea deals to a Black attorney who called the DA’s office “systematically racist”

click to enlarge Pittsburgh politicians call on DA Stephen Zappala to be removed or resign from office
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Stephen Zappala
On Wed., June 2, TribLive reported on an email that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala sent 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.”

Almost immediately after the story broke, criticism of Zappala spread on social media, including two Pittsburgh-area politicians who called for Zappala to resign or be removed from office.

On May 13, attorney Milton Raiford made comments in the courtroom of Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani and showcased frustrations with what Raiford described as systemic racism in Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh area. During a long speech he asked to be on-the-court record, Raiford said it was “very disheartening that in this county, that we had no comment from the district attorney’s office, no comment from our administrative judge at this division, no comment from the supreme court” about police shootings and the coronavirus pandemic. According to TribLive, Raiford added that he believed his clients of color were offered worse plea deals because of their race.

“Your honor, I think the DA’s office is systematically racist,” said Raiford during his speech. “And I think that the criminal justice system is systematically racist.”

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.”

Zappala’s email and actions have led to at least six Pittsburgh-area politicians calling for Zappala to resign or be removed from office. A request to Zappala’s office was not returned by press time.

State Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-North Side) tweeted on June 2 that Zappala “needs to resign or be removed immediately.”

“[Zappala] just admitted that his office dispenses justice differently based on who is involved in the case and not the facts of the case,” tweeted Kinkead. “Zappala has betrayed his oath of office. #ResignZappala”

State Rep. Summer Lee (D-Swissvale) also called for Zappala’s removal, tweeting “Stephen Zappala must be removed immediately. Pass it along.” Congressional candidate and University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson (D-Swissvale) joined the calls for Zappala's resignation, adding that his actions likely violate the First Amendment and "are unethical, unlawful and sanctionable."

Allegheny County Councilor Anita Prizio (D-O'Hara) said that Zappala must resign. "This is shocking and unacceptable," said Prizio in a statement. "Justice must be determined based on the facts of a case, not based on whether the attorney is sufficiently deferential to the DA."

In a statement sent to Pittsburgh City Paper, state Rep. Jessica Benham (D-South Side) called for Zappala to resign following the TribLive story.

“This is unacceptable behavior, consistent with the history of this district attorney’s office that fails to grapple with the systemic racism in our criminal legal system,” said Benham. “DA Zappala should resign.”

Zappala’s decades-long tenure in office has been marked by criticism of racial disparities in prosecutions. Between 2016 and 2017, Zappala’s office charged Black teens as adults 20 times as often as it charged white teens as adults in Allegheny County. In 2018, when asked about these stark racial disparities, Zappala said, “I think it is the process we have in place, to put the burden on the prosecution. You are talking about serious stuff.”

He also recently supported refiling charges against more than a dozen Black Lives Matter protesters who were involved in a demonstration where Pittsburgh Police discharged tear gas, sponge rounds, and other less-lethal weapons at protesters.

Allegheny County Councilor at-large Bethany Hallam (D-North Side) is also asking for Zappala to resign and said that if he doesn’t, she will lobby the county council to consider his actions when allocating the county budget to his office.

“The fact that Zappala issued this edict — which is both unimaginably petty, yet extremely troubling — demonstrates to us clearly that he is not fit to lead that office,” said Hallam in a statement to City Paper. “If he does not voluntarily step down from his position, I promise I will ensure my fellow councilmembers take his actions into consideration in our upcoming county budget discussions.”

Removing a district attorney in Pennsylvania is not a simple task. Due to state law, the Pennsylvania state legislator and the governor must act after the state Supreme Court deems a district attorney has violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. To remove a DA would eventually require a two-thirds vote for conviction from the state Senate, and the approval of the governor.

A bill in the state Senate has been introduced to change this rule, to make it so a district attorney who has their law license removed would amount to a removal from office. The Bradford County District Attorney recently had his law license suspended by the state Supreme Court after he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman, but the decision should not be construed as removing him from elected office.

Editor's note: This article was updated 12:15 p.m. on June 3 to include more statements from Pittsburgh-area politicians.

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