Four local teens were each jailed for up to 15 months despite alibi evidence that proved their innocence, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report Sunday. And on Monday, the independent candidate for Allegheny County District Attorney, Lisa Middleman, blasted Democratic incumbent Stephen Zappala for mishandling the case.
The mistake, Middleman told reporters, “was absolutely avoidable. The decisions that were made by the district attorney’s office created this situation.”
The teens had been accused of committing a 2017 shooting that left three children injured, according to the Post-Gazette. The newspaper did not identify the former defendants because they had been cleared.
On Monday, Middleman criticized authorities for letting the real perpetrators go free, an error that the challenger said endangered the public.
“Not only have four children lost 15 months of their lives,” Middleman said, “but the police have lost 15 months in which to investigate and locate violent criminals.”
Zappala told the Post-Gazette that he accepts responsibility, but that Pittsburgh police and the county’s juvenile probation office also failed to investigate properly. His campaign did not respond to Middleman’s comments Monday.
Flanked by supporters in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Middleman faulted the DA’s office for convening a grand jury in secret to indict the teens.
Unlike a preliminary hearing in open court, Middleman said, the grand jury process “deprived the accused of an early opportunity to point out the obvious shortcomings in the Commonwealth’s case.”
Middleman, an Allegheny County public defender, also criticized the office for reassigning the teens’ case early this year to a prosecutor who was on leave.
Around that time, the Post-Gazette reported, one of the teens’ attorneys submitted an alibi notice to the court. The attorney provided the names and addresses of five witnesses who said they were with three of the teens on the North Side at the time of the shooting, which took place in the Hill District.
Lyft records also accounted for the whereabouts of two of the three teens, according to the newspaper.
The newspaper reported that the fourth teen was on juvenile probation and wore a GPS-monitoring bracelet that showed he was at home on the night of the shooting.
Prosecutors first met with one of the alibi witnesses in September, six months after receiving the alibi notice, and the charges against the teens were dropped within an hour, according to the Post-Gazette.
‘It is the district attorney’s job’
On Monday, Middleman said she expects the teens will sue the district attorney’s office for wrongful prosecution. The candidate said she has spoken with the teens' attorneys but would not disclose details from those conversations.
If elected, Middleman said she would get rid of at least some of the office’s 29 investigators, who she called “useless.”
“Surely one of those 29 could have gone out and investigated the [teens’] alibis,” Middleman said.
Middleman said, as DA, she would rely more on local, county, and state police, as well as federal agencies, to conduct investigations.
Zappala told the Post-Gazette that a relatively inexperienced Pittsburgh police investigator was partly responsible for the teens' arrest. And, the newspaper reported, a spokesman for the district attorney said none of the agencies involved in the case followed protocols for checking electronic home monitoring records for the defendants.
But Middleman said that ultimate responsibility lies with the prosecutor’s office.
“It is the district attorney’s job to review the investigation by the police and to use her knowledge of the law to determine if charges are appropriate or further investigation is necessary,” Middleman said.
Judy Clack, the voter-service chair for the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, said that Zappala declined to attend an Oct. 14 debate for countywide office-seekers. He's the only incumbent to refuse to do so: Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and County Controller Chelsa Wagner, who are each facing Republican challengers, agreed to attend.
Clack said that Zappala's campaign said he had "too many other commitments" to attend. Then, when the League asked for "two or three dates" which would work better, the campaign did not respond.
Zappala also eschewed a debate in the spring, when he faced a primary challenge from Turahn Jenkins. At the time he told the Post-Gazette that he declined to take part in an ACLU-sponsored event but would join an event in a "legitimate forum" backed by a group like the League.
"We were thrilled and encouraged that, because we were the lead organizer for this, that he would indeed come to our event,” Clack said.
The ACLU was slated to be a cosponsor of the Oct. 14 debate, as was the Black Political Empowerment Project, which has recently criticized Zappala's handling of a case involving the beating of two black women at a North Side gas station.
Clack said that while cosponsors help with publicity and tasks like call-screening, the League is "the lead organizer” and has “very strict guidelines about how a forum will transpire.”
“I know this [would have been] a very fair, controlled environment,” Clack said.
And while she said Zappala might feel some trepidation about some of the other sponsors, "He wants to be the district attorney for the entire county. He should be willing to stand up and answer questions from the public."
In a statement, the Zappala campaign said it was having a roundtable discussion on victims' rights, which would cover Marsy's Law, an effort to establish protections for victims in the state constitution.
The statement noted that the ACLU opposes Marsy's Law and complained of its "clear opposition to our campaign in this year's primary election."
The statement also faulted event organizers for not criticizing Middleman for a years-old statements she made about excluding African Americans from a jury in the trial of a white supremacist: According to a press account, Middleman said she didnt' want "fat, ugly women" on the jury because they would envy her. She has since explained that the remarks were an effort to satirize prosecutors' efforts to remove black jurors in other cases.
"We have no desire to share a stage with someone who espouses those beliefs," Zappala’s campaign wrote.
Chris Potter contributed to this story.