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DA defends ending plea deals to clients of Black lawyer who accused his office of racial bias

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said he wants to ensure "consistent, evidence-based decisions and avoid false claims of racism."
Stephen Zappala Jr
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., in Pittsburgh in 2018.Keith Srakocic / AP file

A district attorney in Pennsylvania is defending his decision to stop offering plea deals to clients of a Black defense lawyer who accused the prosecutor's office of racial bias in court last month.

On Thursday, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. released a memo that he sent to his deputies on May 18 telling them not to offer any plea deals to clients of the lawyer, Milton Raiford, over what Zappala described as Raiford's "convoluted critical diatribe."

Zappala, a Democrat, told the deputy district attorneys that they needed permission from the "front office" to withdraw charges against Raiford's clients and that any discussions with Raiford must be "memorialized."

The memo was sent five days after Raiford told a judge that he believed that the district attorney's office and the justice system in general were "systematically racist."

Zappala's memo, which was first reported Wednesday by The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, drew condemnation from Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. Shuford said the policy is unethical, a violation of the First Amendment and deeply disturbing.

"District attorneys are some of the most powerful people in the criminal legal system," Shuford wrote in a news release this week. "They have the power to determine what charges are filed against an individual and what criminal proceedings stem from those charges."

"Indeed, retaliating against an attorney who complains about racism in the DA's office by refusing to offer plea agreements to his clients is itself arguably evidence of bias," Shuford said.

Zappala's office did not immediately return a request for comment Friday. Raiford could not immediately be reached at numbers listed for him.

Zappala is facing calls to resign from State Rep. Emily Kinkead, who tweeted Wednesday: "He just instructed his office to punish the clients of an attorney who criticized the criminal justice system as a whole (not just the DA's office) for being 'systematically racist.'"

"He just admitted that his office dispenses justice differently based on who is involved in the case and not the facts of the case," she wrote in a separate tweet. "Zappala has betrayed his oath of office."

Zappala's policy was prompted by remarks Raiford made May 13 in a Pittsburgh courtroom after a hearing in which his client pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in a 2019 stabbing, according to a transcript Zappala released Thursday. Raiford told the judge that he was not accusing the prosecutors who handled that case of acting inappropriately.

At the end of the hearing, Raiford asked the judge if he could put something on the record.

In a lengthy speech, Raiford touched on such topics as racism in the criminal justice system and how courts have responded to the pandemic. He also stated that Allegheny County, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, specifically, "is the worst place to live" if you're an African American with regard to health care and jobs and that African Americans are moving away because of it.

He said African Americans are six times more likely to be arrested by a police officer during a pre-textual traffic stop "than anybody in the whole county," all of which he said was documented by a law professor who teaches about police behavior at the University of Pittsburgh.

At one point, the judge asked Raiford: "Are you saying there's some kind of systematic plea arrangement with the DA's Office that the darker your skin, the worse your plea agreement?"

Raiford responded: "Your honor, I think the DA's Office is systematically racist. And I think that the criminal justice system is systematically racist."

Raiford told The Tribune-Review that he made the comments because he was frustrated with what he considers systemic racism in Pittsburgh and that requests he made months earlier to meet with Zappala to discuss the issues went unanswered.

"The winds of change are blowing in our country," he told the newspaper. "Where district attorneys across the country are finding ways of lessening the numbers of Black men in custody, it's shortsighted for our DA not to make a statement of steps he's going to take."

In his statement Thursday, Zappala said that his office "strives to carry out its mission with the integrity and respect" that residents deserve and that his policy was meant to ensure "consistent, evidence-based decisions and avoid false claims of racism" against its lawyers.