Alle. Co. DA Zappala faces rising criticism over reports he retaliated against Black attorney

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State Rep. Ed Gainey, the Democratic nominee for Pittsburgh mayor, has joined the chorus of voices calling for an investigation into Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, following a report that Zappala retaliated against a defense attorney who criticized the DA’s office. 

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported on Wednesday that Zappala, a Democrat, sent an email to deputy prosecutors on May 18 instructing them not to offer plea deals to attorney Milton Raiford, who is Black. 

According to the Tribune-Review, Raiford said during a May 13 hearing before Judge Anthony Mariani in Allegheny Common Pleas Court that he believes the “DA’s office is systematically racist,” prompting the email from Zappala to his deputies, which called Raiford’s comments a “convoluted critical diatribe.”

In the email, Zappala wrote that for Raiford’s clients “no plea offers are to be made.” 

When he learned of the email, Raiford told the Trib he found Zappala’s actions “vindictive,” adding “I don’t know why he’s making my clients suffer because of something I said.”

Zappala’s office released a copy of the email in a statement on Thursday, saying that Raiford had accused the DA’s office of “making different plea offers based on skin color,” and said he wouldn’t accept “crazy plea agreements” from the DA’s office.

“In order to ensure that this office makes consistent, evidence-based decisions, and avoid false claims of racism against this Office and its Assistant District Attorneys, I took seriously that attorney’s stated desire not to accept plea offers, and directed my Deputy District Attorneys to memorialize any plea discussions with this attorney and not to offer pleas to that attorney without approval from the front office,” Zappala said in the statement.

As some Pittsburgh-area politicians began calling for Zappala to resign or be removed from office, Mayor Bill Peduto called for an investigation into the matter. Peduto, who has been at odds with Zappala on more than one occasion, told reporters Thursday the email was “an abuse of office. It is a personal attack against one individual, and having been on the side of the DA’s attacks over the past eight years, I know what it’s like.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania also criticized Zappala’s actions.

“It is unethical for a DA to order a blanket ban on offering plea deals to an individual attorney’s clients,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania said in a statement. “It’s also a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. If true, these allegations are deeply disturbing.” 

Gainey said in a statement that the situation was “a sign of how much more work remains to be done to deliver on the promise of equal justice for all.” He said Zappala should “reverse course on this reckless decision, apologize, and open his office to any investigation into this matter to preserve public confidence in the conduct of the office.”

Zappala does not face re-election until 2023. 

Correspondent Kim Lyons covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy.