On Oct. 6, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that four innocent teenagers had been unjustly held in the Allegheny County Jail for up to 15 months. All the teens had alibis, but were arrested in connection to a 2017 Hill District shooting that resulted in three children being wounded.
In September 2019, all four were released and their charges were dropped. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala told the P-G he accepts responsibility for the jailings, but also said there were problems that cut across his office, the Pittsburgh Police Department, and the Allegheny County Juvenile Probation.
Lisa Middleman, who is running for Allegheny County DA as an independent against Zappala, believes that the blame lies with Zappala and decisions his office made in prosecuting the teenagers.
Middleman held a rally at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Tue., Oct. 7 with about two dozen supporters. She criticized Zappala’s office for using a grand jury indictment process in prosecuting the teens, which made it impossible for defense attorneys to challenge witness testimony in preliminary hearings.
“Not only have the children lost 15 months of their lives, but the police have lost 15 months of work."
She claimed Zappala was more focused on winning the case than seeking the truth, saying there was a “lack of a review of the facts.” Middleman noted the case is still unsolved and the shooters remain at large.
“Not only have the children lost 15 months of their lives, but the police have lost 15 months of work,” said Middleman.
Middleman said, if elected, she would cut down on the usage of grand jury indictments as a prosecutorial tool, and she would remove and/or reassign the vast majority of the district attorney investigators. Zappala’s office currently has 29 investigators assigned to dig up details on cases. Middleman questioned how that many investigators could miss basic facts in the teens’ cases, like their verifiable alibis.
She said there are plenty of investigators in local, state, and federal law enforcement departments that can assist the DA office. Middleman also called for an investigative integrity office with the DA office, to ensure accountability.
She said she has spoken to the four teens’ attorneys, but would not comment on what was discussed. She said she expects civil suits to be filed against Zappala’s office on behalf of the teens.
Middleman is running as a reformer to Allegheny County’s criminal justice system. She has been endorsed by progressive groups, the Libertarian Party of Allegheny County, and several Democratic politicians in the area. Zappala, a Democrat, last held a campaign event with the Young Republicans of Allegheny County, a group that has come under fire for spreading false news about Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s office.
As Pittsburgh City Paper reported in 2018, Black teens in Allegheny Country are 20 times as likely as white teens to be prosecuted as adults. Zappala defended this disparity, saying “I think it is the process we have in place, to put the burden on the prosecution. You are talking about serious stuff.”
State Rep. Summer Lee (D-Swissvale) has introduced criminal-justice related bills and has been an outspoken advocate for reform in the county and the state. Lee has endorsed Middleman for DA, and tweeted on Oct. 6 that the current race for district attorney is the most important the Pittsburgh region currently faces.
“Every day we learn new examples of black and brown folks abused in this system,” tweeted Lee. “Today, 4 [innocent] teens left in prison for a year, exculpatory evidence ignored. The time to pick a side is now.”