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Courts & Justice

Zappala Backs Down From Plea Bargain Rule Targeting Lawyer Who Called DA’s Office Racist

Stephen Zappala, Robert Jones
Keith Srakocic
/
AP
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said in a statement dated Sunday, June 6, that he will now require his staff to investigate any plea offer that a defendant or attorney accuses of being discriminatory. He previously told his staff not to bargain with criminal defense attorney Milton Raifford after Raifford called prior plea offers racist.

In an apparent reversal, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced in a memo dated Sunday that he will require his staff to investigate allegations of discriminatory plea deals. The move follows the DA’s decision last month to deny plea offers to a lawyer who called his office systemically racist.

Zappala said his new policy will help to ensure that plea bargaining in his office is “consistent [and] evidence-based" regardless of a defendant’s identity – or who their lawyer is. Zappala had previously forbidden prosecutors from negotiating with attorney Milton E. Raiford because Raiford had called prior plea offers racist and vowed to stop accepting them.

“However, this office’s review of plea offers made to only one attorney and only about racism will not necessarily achieve the goals of consistency in treatment of all defendants,” Zappala wrote in his memo to staff, which was made public Monday.

By requiring investigations of any plea offer that a defendant or attorney claims is discriminatory, Zappala appears to have walked back his rule against Raifford. His statement said his new policy will apply to all cases.

After examining an allegation of racial or other bias in plea negotiations, “including any cases that the attorney or defendant allege are comparable to the defendant’s case,” Zappala said assistant district attorneys must decide whether it’s necessary to report the accusation to higher-ups.

Amid revelations last week that Zappala had prohibited plea offers specifically for Raiford’s clients, critics said he should have instead ordered a study of potential racial bias in all of his office's plea dealings.

“The crux of the issue is the reaction: Why is there a targeted policy against one attorney instead of deciding to take an internal look at his office?” Tierra Bradford, criminal justice policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, asked in an interview Friday. “I think that's where a lot of people are perplexed.”

But Rep. Emily Kinkead, who has been an outspoken critic of Zappala, said his new policy falls short.

Kinkead accused the DA of trying to "magic this all away" so that people will forget the whole controversy. She acknowledged that the new policy reversed the unfair treatment of Raiford and his clients, but at the same time, "It feels like he's doubled down on the existing system," which Raiford was complaining about in the first place.

"What Raiford was talking about was systematic racism, and [Zappala] has offered a piecemeal solution" in which defense attorneys have to make the case for themselves that a plea offer is unfair, Kinkead said. Such occurrences would be hard to detect from outside the DA's office, the lawmaker said, given limited public data on plea bargains and the number of factors involved in such negotiations.

Under Zappala’s rule, Kinkead said, "The office that has the information is saying the other side has to prove the case.”

Despite Zappala’s apparent turnabout Sunday, legal experts agree his no-plea rule against Raiford could trigger ethics charges, possibly on the grounds that he interfered with the fair administration of justice or violated his duty to county residents to serve justice.

A state disciplinary board could bring such charges only after completing an investigation. The board keeps all probes confidential unless it issues a public sanction.

Chris Potter contributed to this report.

*This story was updated at 5:11 p.m. on Monday, June 7, 2021, to include statements from state Rep. Emily Kinkead.