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Zappala Doubles Down On Plea Bargain Denial

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala is defended himself Thursday, June 3, against a report that he prohibited plea deals for the clients of a lawyer who called his office racist.
Keith Srakocic
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. defended himself Thursday, June 3, against a report that he prohibited plea deals for the clients of a lawyer who called his office racist.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. doubled down Thursday on his decision to prohibit plea offers for the clients of a Black lawyer who criticized his office last month.

In a statement late Thursday afternoon, Zappala noted that criminal defense attorney Milton Raiford called the DA’s office “systematically racist” during a May 13 court hearing. According to a transcript of the hearing that the DA’s office included in its statement Thursday, Raiford also accused the office of offering less favorable plea terms to defendants of color. And he said he would not be “going for those crazy plea agreements,” and that the criminal justice system “needs to be undermined.”

Zappala said that Raiford falsely pointed to a case not being heard on May 13 as an example of racially biased plea negotiations. In that case, Raiford said, a client of his was offered a four-to-eight-year sentence for a marijuana conviction. But the DA’s office denied that it had suggested such “excessive” punishment. Rather, it said the case also had involved weapons charges.

Zappala said he told his staff in an email to withhold plea agreements in an effort to “avoid false claims of racism against this office and its assistant district attorneys,” and to be consistent with Raiford’s “stated desire not to accept plea offers.” Zappala also said that prosecutors could ask him to make exceptions.

But Zappala’s explanation did little to satisfy Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz.

Plea bargains are made with – and for the sake of – the defendant and not the attorney, he said.

"It doesn't matter who the attorney is. Whether you go to trial, what you charge, whether you offer a plea bargain … cannot have anything to do with who the attorney is,” Ledewitz said. “And it doesn't make any difference whether you believe the attorney grandstands. It doesn't make any difference whether you believe the attorney is unfair.”

“The proper response,” Ledewitz continued, “is for the district attorney's office to disqualify itself in any case involving that attorney” and have an independent prosecutor try those cases instead.

Ledwitz noted, however, that “defense attorneys often make unfair claims in court about the district attorney's office. … It shouldn't be done, but it happens all the time.”

He said Zappala should have responded to Raiford’s criticism by ordering a study of his office’s plea-bargaining practices to determine whether they are racially biased. “What we really need here is accountability, not reaction, not anger,” Ledewitz said.

Zappala's statement came amid continuing criticism of his email, which was first reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Wednesday.

The Allegheny County Bar Association issued a statement Thursday saying that refusing to offer plea deals “undermines access to justice and interferes with the rights guaranteed to criminal defendants.” Acting on Zappala’s instructions “would be unethical and retaliatory to criminal defendants based on ideological differences between the district attorney and their defense counsel,” the bar association said.

Speaking with reporters after a press conference on gun violence Thursday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said, “There should be a full investigation that's done independently.”

Peduto, who has a long-running feud with Zappala, said the email was "an abuse of office. It is a personal attack against one individual, and having been on the side of the DA's attacks over the past eight years, I know what it's like."

In January, when the mayoral campaign was just getting underway, Zappala released a statement announcing that his office would refile charges against several people involved in last summer’s protests of police brutality – and blamed the move on Peduto.

But on Thursday, Peduto declined to call for Zappala’s resignation. “Even district attorneys have legal rights,” he said, adding that he “won’t join the bandwagon of those that just want to put him in a stockade.”

“He does deserve his day in court, but in order to have a day in court, you need to go through the procedures.”

Peduto echoed a call yesterday by the state American Civil Liberties Union for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and a state Supreme Court disciplinary board to review the matter. The ACLU said that Zappala’s position threatened Raiford’s free-speech rights, and added that “retaliating against an attorney who complains about racism in the DA’s office by refusing to offer plea agreements to his clients is itself arguably evidence of bias.”

Shapiro’s office late Thursday expressed concern about the reports, but a statement seemed to suggest it saw no role for itself in the matter.

“You shouldn’t be treated differently in our justice system based on who you are or who represents you in court,” the statement read. “What has been publicly reported here is concerning; questions of professional conduct and ethical behavior are the responsibility of Pennsylvania’s Disciplinary Board.”

Other politicians have also called for an investigation. State Rep. Dan Frankel, a Squirrel Hill Democrat, tweeted that the matter was “disturbing” and required a review. “We need a full accounting of this incident individually, and we need questions answered about whether it fits into a larger pattern of abuse of power,” said Frankel.

A number of progressive politicians have called for Zappala to resign outright, though Democratic state Rep. Ed Gainey, who is the Democratic nominee to be the city's next mayor, did not go that far.

Gainey beat Peduto in the mayoral primary last month, running a campaign that, among other things, faulted the incumbent for not doing enough to address racial bias in policing. In a statement Thursday evening, Gainey said, "District Attorney Zappala's decision to retaliate against criminal defendants because thier attorney gave voice to the growing consensus about the need for criminal justice reform was a disappointing step backward, and a sign of how much more work remains to be done to deliver on the promise of equal justice for all."

Gainey said he was calling on Zappala "to reverse course on this reckless decision, apologize, and open his office to any investigation into this matter to preserve public confidence in the conduct of the office."

Update: This story was updated at 7:58 p.m. on June 3, 2021 to include a statement from Ed Gainey.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.