By Ryan Deto
PITTSBURGH — Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala has faced significant fallout for an email he sent in May to his deputy prosecutors forbidding them from offering any plea deals to the clients of a well-known Black lawyer who five days prior criticized Zappala’s office for being “systematically racist.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and a state Supreme Court disciplinary board to review Zappala’s actions, adding that they threatened the lawyer’s free speech rights. Several leaders have condemned Zappala, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, and six politicians within Allegheny County have called on Zappala to resign or be removed from office.
Allegheny County Judge David R. Cashman halted the administration of plea agreements because of Zappala’s plea deal ban and called the policy “fundamentally wrong.”
And now Zappala is facing even more criticism from more elected officials in Allegheny County. On Fri., June 4, nearly a dozen state representatives are calling on Zappala to reverse the plea deal ban, formally apologize, and agree to an investigation by a separate prosecutor.
Zappala is also a Democrat.
Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham University, told The Tribune-Review that a public apology from Zappala would likely quell the controversy surrounding his actions, and likely lessen discipline against him. On June 3, WESA-FM reported that Zappala had doubled down on his actions.
Kinkead, who has called on Zappala to resign or be removed, had additional strong words about the top prosecutor’s actions.
It's my birthday! 🎉🎂 If anyone wants to get me a present, I'll take DA Zappala's resignation. 🎁📝⚖️
(Please note that in addition to refusing plea offers to Attorney Raiford's clients, he also decided that Judge Mariani needed be monitored and reported on.) pic.twitter.com/r3QIecNlal
— Emily Kinkead (@emily4pa20) June 4, 2021
“It is undisputed that our criminal justice system has real, systemic and systematic issues of racism and Allegheny County is far from immune. DA Stephen Zappala’s decision not to address these issues but instead to instruct his staff not to offer plea deals to attorney Milton Raiford’s clients after he voiced concerns about these issues betrays public trust in their ability to receive equal justice in Allegheny County, not to mention violating attorney Raiford’s free speech rights,” Kinkead said in a statement. “To potentially punish clients because of the statements their attorney made is beyond reprehensible and must be addressed immediately. This latest action raises additional concerns as to how the district attorney’s office has conducted its business, notably in how it has treated clients of other attorneys, including those with whom DA Zappala may have disagreed, now or in the past.”
Other Allegheny County Democratic elected officials signing on to Kinkead’s letter include state Sen. Lindsey Williams, and state Reps. Austin Davis, Sara Innamorato, Summer Lee, Dan Deasy, Jessica Benham, Nick Pisciottano, Brandon Markosek, Jake Wheatley, and Ed Gainey, who is also the Democratic nominee for Pittsburgh mayor.
“District attorneys are among the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system,” the lawmakers wrote. “That power can be used to pursue justice or to deny it. Your policy and your actions have put you squarely in the latter category. We demand that you take corrective action immediately.”
Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.