It didn’t take long after a white police officer shot and killed a black unarmed teen last summer for activists to find a second person on whom to lay blame: Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.
Activists called for the district attorney’s removal, even before he decided a week later that he would charge East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld with homicide for fatally shooting Antwon Rose.
Within days, Democrat Turahn Jenkins announced he would challenge Zappala in the May 21 primary election.
Zappala has been district attorney for 21 years. In a recent interview with WESA, he defended the time he took to announce charges against Rosfeld, saying he had to proceed with caution.
“[The Rose] family didn’t even have the ability to bury their son, and people are calling for criminal charges," Zappala said.
"I’ll take care of this,” he said of his mindset at the time, “but I’m going to give you the opportunity to bury your child.”
A jury acquitted Rosfeld in March. Critics fault prosecutors for not calling a use-of-force expert as a witness: Rosfeld's defense called on such a witness to defend his actions. But Zappala said the three experts his office contacted were unwilling to testify.
And he said his office takes police shootings seriously. As evidence, he cited two other times where it prosecuted officers who shot unarmed civilians in the back. In one of those cases, the officer was acquitted. In the other, the officer pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
But Brandi Fisher of the Alliance for Police Accountability said there have been too many other cases where Zappala has sided with police.
Zappala “needs them to win his cases,” Fisher said. “It makes no sense that we then would ask someone to turn around and forcefully charge their friends.”
She trusts that Jenkins would be different.
But some in law enforcement are sitting the race out: The Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police union is not endorsing either candidate. And while Jenkins drew support from activists early on, he stumbled with some progressives when he said that homesexuality is a sin. The candidate, who has ties to a deeply conservative church, apologized for those remarks last month.
He has sought to turn the attack by maintaining that, unlike Zappala, he would have found an expert to testify at Rosfeld’s trial.
“I believe that we should all be held to the same standard. It shouldn’t matter, your occupation [as a police officer],” he said. “We should all be held to the same standard – equal accountability across the board.”
Jenkins previously served as chief deputy director for the Allegheny County Public Defender's Office. Before that, he was an assistant district attorney for two years.
He said, if elected, he would push harder than Zappala for treatment programs and community service as alternatives to incarceration.
“I’ve always said that the criminal justice system should be more focused on people who are violent and people who are dangerous, as opposed to the people that make mistakes or suffer from mental health or drug addiction or poverty,” Jenkins said.
Zappala countered that he’s pursued such reforms since becoming district attorney in 1998. For example, he sought to reduce the use of cash bail and launched programs like drug court and mental health court, which connect eligible defendants with treatment and community support.
“And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to start all these programs,” Zappala said, “so … we can understand this person’s condition, this person’s family, what their needs are.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor and 90.5 WESA legal analyst David Harris said Zappala has at times been on the cutting edge of reforms. But he noted that the national conversation about criminal justice – and its racial and class disparities – have shifted.
“[Zappala] was always vocal on a number of these issues and made some changes here in his county that, at the time, were reforms of a very significant type,” Harris said. “Now, we have many more people proposing those and more.”
Antwon Rose’s death brought racial tensions to the surface last summer, and prompted weeks of protests. Some recall similar turmoil in 1995 when black motorist Jonny Gammage died at the hands of suburban police. Zappala was criticized in the wake of that death as well, when he decided not to retry one of the officers after a mistrial.
Criminal defense attorney Bob Del Greco represented Gamage’s family. He said they were disappointed by that decision. But he said that state law makes it hard to win such cases against police.
“Probably with a couple decades of hindsight and reflection,” he said, “I’d be willing to concede that [Zappala made] the correct decision, although at the time, it didn’t feel that way.”
No Republicans are running for the seat.