Lisa Middleman launched her independent campaign for Allegheny County District Attorney pledging to reform a justice system that incarcerates people of color at disproportionate rates.
But the public defender herself was accused of removing black jurors from a racially charged case 27 years ago, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story from 1996.
The story, which was circulated on social media by a Republican political consultant over the weekend, revisited a 1992 trial in which Middleman had to explain why she had four black people removed from a jury – and later offered an eyebrow-raising explanation for why she had done so.
Middleman, who is set to challenge 21-year incumbent Stephen Zappala in the November election, was representing a teenager charged with ethnic intimidation. W. Scott MacIntyre was accused of offering $20 and cigarettes to three teens to spray racial epithets on the home of a biracial couple, according to the Post-Gazette.
After a jury with one black member was sworn in, the prosecutor in the case accused Middleman of striking other potential black jurors for no legitimate reason.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Raymond Novak conducted a hearing, and Middleman insisted that she had reasons other than race for excluding two black men and two black women from the jury.
She said one of the black men “was unemployed and was older,” according to the Post-Gazette. The other black man, Middleman reportedly said, gave her client “a hostile look.”
As for a black woman who was not chosen, Middleman said she removed her “because she was heavy,” according to the 1996 story.
“This sounds very conceited,” Middleman is quoted as saying. “I don’t like fat women on my jury because I don’t want them to be jealous that I’m not fat. That’s a stupid reason. It is nonetheless a reason I think of.”
“I don’t want fat, ugly women on my jury,” Middleman continued, “because I don’t – it sounds like that commercial, ‘don’t hate me because I’m beautiful’ – I don’t want them to dislike me.”
In a statement posted Sunday, Middleman characterized the remarks as “satirical comments” designed to call out prosecutors for their own efforts to remove African Americans from juries.
The statement expressed regret that “my comments fed into fatphobia and anti-blackness and there is no place for that type of sentiment anywhere.” But it said they were intended as a “mockery of the unkind, hurtful, and nonsensical excuses that assistant district attorneys would give” when removing black jurors.
“In the 27 years since [the MacIntyre trial],” Middleman said, “I have learned to be more measured and professional in my legal arguments, and more mindful of the effects that my words have on others.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor and 90.5 WESA legal analyst David Harris agrees that prosecutors have long offered dishonest rationales for removing black jurors.
In the 1992 hearing, he said, Middleman stated the kind of “race-neutral ... reasons that you would hear in court every day, even today.”
For example, Harris continued, “‘Guy gave my client a dirty look,’ or ‘gave me a dirty look.’ Or, ‘This one is unemployed.’ Or, ‘I just didn’t have a good feeling about that one.’ Those are plausible reasons, assuming all jurors are treated the same.”
Harris noted that while “race-neutral” reasoning is required by courts today, racial disparities in jury selection persist.
'A joke of a candidate'
The judge who presided over 1992 case, however, called Middleman’s explanations for striking black jurors “insubstantial, and ‘somewhat incredible,’” reported the Post-Gazette.
And Republican political consultant Blake Gober, who drew attention to the 1996 story on Twitter Saturday, said Middleman’s apology came too late.
“For someone that wants to be DA of the second-largest county in the commonwealth not to apologize immediately [in the 1990s] shows how much of a joke of a candidate she is,” Gober said. “No one should take her seriously.”
Gober noted that the Post-Gazette story did not say that Middleman’s comments were satirical, though it also does not include further comment from Middleman about her intentions at the time.
The Middleman campaign suggested in its statement Sunday that Zappala had a hand in resurfacing the 1996 story – an attempt, the campaign said, to “drag us down into talking about sarcasm from 1992.”
Zappala garnered enough Republican write-in votes in the spring primary to appear on the GOP ticket in November. And last week, Pittsburgh City Paper reported that Zappala had planned to meet with the Young Republicans of Allegheny County Thursday.
But Gober said he does not work for the district attorney’s campaign.
“I don't have a dog in the race,” he said, before adding, "Of all the Dems, he's one of the best out there."
Still, Gober said, "[Zappala] is a Democrat, and I don't agree with him on a lot of issues."
Zappala campaign spokesman Steve Zappala, who is also the district attorney’s son, disputed the claim that the incumbent had anything to do with the story.
“We have no history of attacking our political opponents for our gain,” he said.
'Nothing she did was outside the law'
In its Sunday statement, the Middleman campaign emphasized the candidate’s efforts to combat racial bias in jury selection during her 32 years as an Allegheny County public defender. In 2001, the campaign said, Middleman helped to initiate a study that showed that black people are underrepresented in jury pools in Allegheny County.
Middleman suggested that despite such efforts, racial disparities have persisted during Zappala’s tenure.
“Unfortunately, 27 years later,” the candidate said, “the underlying inequities that I was pointing out still remain, and I remain committed to continuing the fight against them.”
In the 1992 case, the judge ruled that the prosecution had objected to the jury’s make-up too late for anything to be done about it. The jury ultimately found Middleman’s client not guilty of ethnic intimidation.
Harris, the law professor, noted that at the time, the U.S. Supreme Court still had not decided whether defense attorneys were prohibited from exercising peremptory challenges based on race.
In 1986, the court had declared only that prosecutors are not allowed to challenge potential jurors based on their race. The high court eventually determined in June of 1992, four months after the MacIntyre case, that the rule also applies to defense attorneys.
“Nothing she did was outside the law as it stood at that moment,” Harris said of Middleman’s representation in the 1992 ethnic intimidation case. “Her job was to do everything she could to give her client the best possible and strongest defense that the law allowed.”
Chris Potter contributed to this report.