By Ryan Deto
PITTSBURGH — In May, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala emailed his deputy prosecutors, forbidding them from offering any plea deals to clients of a well-known Black lawyer who, five days prior, criticized Zappala’s office for being “systematically racist.”
Since that news was broken by The Tribune-Review, Zappala has faced criticism from more than a dozen local politicians and elected officials.
Some of them called for him to resign, and others called for him to apologize, open his office up to an investigation by an independent prosecutor, and rescind his policy of denying plea deals to the clients of Milton Raiford, the well-known Black lawyer who criticized Zappala’s office during a speech given in an Allegheny County courtroom.
On Sunday, Zappala issued a statement rescinding that policy, and said that his office will instead investigate and formally respond to any claims of discrimination it receives from defendants.
“From now forward, if any attorney or unrepresented defendant raises concerns that the plea offer is treating the defendant differently because of the defendant’s protected status, then the Assistant District Attorney shall obtain all facts upon which the attorney or defendant relies in making the assertion, including any cases that the attorney or defendant allege are comparable to the defendant’s case,” the statement that Zappala, a Democrat, sent to prosecutors, reads. “The Assistant District Attorney shall investigate the facts and, if necessary, bring the matter to the attention of their supervising Deputy District Attorney or the front Office for aid in the investigation and input on the appropriate plea offer.”
The attached document explains a new / amended policy regarding plea offers,https://t.co/5UVzk7nakX
— AlleghenyCountyDA (@AlleghenyCoDA) June 7, 2021
The statement didn’t indicate if Zappala would apologize or agree to an investigation. The letter did reiterate Zappala’s defense of why he emailed prosecutors instructing them to ban plea deals from Raiford, claiming that his email focused on Raiford because Raiford’s allegation of systemic racism in the Zappala’s DA office was the first time he had ever heard of such allegations.
After reports of the email became public, Zappala defended his policy against Raiford, saying Raiford was false when calling his plea offers racist and he vowed not to accept the DA’s offers.
However, Zappala’s June 6 letter added that such a policy specifically targeted at Raiford or any one attorney “will not necessarily achieve the goals of consistency in treatment of all defendants or avoiding false claims of discrimination.”
Zappala’s office has come under criticism for racial disparities in prosecutions before Raiford’s speech this May.
Between 2016 and 2017, Zappala’s office charged Black teens as adults 20 times as often as it charged white teens as adults in Allegheny County.
A December 2020 report by the Abolitionist Law Center, a criminal justice reform group, found that the population of the Allegheny County Jail is 67 percent Black, even though Allegheny County’s population as a whole is less than 13 percent Black.
University of Pittsburgh law professor Jessie Allen, a legal ethics expert, told WESA-FM that Zappala’s email banning plea deals were a “violation of the most basic ethical duty to his client” and could provide the basis of sanctions from a state disciplinary board.
State Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, has been critical of Zappala, and drafted a letter calling on him to rescind his policy, apologize, and agree to an investigation. She also has called on him to resign, which she reiterated on June 7, before news broke about his letter to prosecutors apparently rescinding his plea deal ban towards Raiford.