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Zappala Says Evidence Does Not Support Felony Charges For Gas Station Assault

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala speaks Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, after accepting the Center for Victims' "Guardian of Victims' Rights" award.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said Wednesday that the law would not allow him to charge three men with felony offenses for allegedly assaulting two black women at a gas station.

Protestors had urged Zappala to charge the men with aggravated assault, which is a felony. But his office opted Monday to accuse them of simple assault, a less serious misdemeanor offense.

“The evidence based on what I saw doesn’t support aggravated assault,” which Zappala said, is “equivalent to almost third-degree murder. … It’s a recklessness where you’re trying to really hurt somebody or take somebody’s life.”

Zappala said cell phone video of the altercation at the Brighton Road Exxon gas station on the North Side Friday night did not justify such an allegation.

“With aggravated assault, you either need a weapon [or] you need bodily injury,” Zappala told reporters Wednesday.

According to the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety, city police responded to a report of a fight between two men who own the gas station and two female customers at 6:45 p.m. Friday. The department said in a release that the altercation began after the customers said a gas pump malfunctioned and demanded a refund over the spilled gas. When the gas station owners denied the refund, an argument ensued and became violent.

Bystander video shows one woman being struck in the back of the head multiple times and thrown against a gas pump. The other woman was dragged across pavement and hit multiple times. The video also shows that a gas station employee was involved in the confrontation.

Scott Hill, Sukhjinder Sadhra, and Balkar Singh were charged with assaulting the women.

Zappala noted that the victims have said they were not injured in the confrontation.

Six members of Pittsburgh City Council, nonetheless, plan to write a letter asking the district attorney to file felony charges against the three defendants. Councilors Darlene Harris and Theresa Kail-Smith said on Tuesday they will not sign the letter. On Wednesday, Councilor Anthony Coghill said he is undecided.

Zappala said he has no plans to upgrade the charges, given existing evidence.

He anticipated that, if the case proceeds to trial, the gas station owners will argue “you can defend your place of business. You can defend your home. You can use force if necessary to do that.”

But he countered, “Against these ladies? I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Alluding to demands for more serious charges, Zappala said, that “would be easy for me to do politically … I have [that] discretion – I can charge anything I want. But, it wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Zappala addressed the incident at the Center for Victims, after receiving the center’s "Guardian of Victims' Rights" award.

President and CEO of the Center for Victims, Laurie MacDonald, praised Zappala for taking an “innovative” approach to supporting victims of crime. For example, she said, he has helped to implement video conferencing for residents of the Mon Valley who request emergency protection from their alleged abusers but “don’t have access to the courts here in Pittsburgh in the middle of the night.”

“District Attorney Zappala has been one of the great advocates for victims in the state,” MacDonald said. “He always put victims first.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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