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DA rescinds policy barring plea deals to clients of Black lawyer who accused his office of racial bias

Allegheny County, Pa., District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. has come under mounting criticism and faced calls to resign from elected officials and criminal justice advocates.
Stephen Zappala Jr
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. talks about the shooting death of Antwon Rose Jr. at a news conference in Pittsburgh in June 2018.Keith Srakocic / AP file

A district attorney in Pennsylvania has rescinded his policy of refusing to make plea offers to clients of a Black lawyer who said the prosecutor's office is "systematically racist."

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. has come under mounting criticism and faced calls to resign from elected officials and criminal justice advocates over the policy implemented May 18 — five days after the lawyer, Milton Raiford, told a judge during a hearing that he believed that people of color in the county get less favorable plea offers and that the district attorney's office and criminal justice system are "systematically racist."

"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," Zappala told his deputies in an "amended policy" dated June 6 and released Monday.

"Undoubtedly, you have heard the public reaction to my email that I sent to all Deputy District Attorneys on May 18, 2021," Zappala wrote. "As I stated in my response to the public's concerns, I wrote that email in order to ensure that this office makes consistent, evidence based plea offers, and to avoid false claims of racism against this Office and its Assistant District Attorneys."

He directed his deputies to "investigate the facts and, if necessary, bring the matter to the attention of their" supervisors or the front office for aid and input on the appropriate plea offer, the latest memo said.

"In any event, the Assistant District Attorney shall make a written report to the First Assistant District Attorney of each allegation of discrimination in plea offers and the outcome of the investigation so the front office can track and analyze the allegations in order to aid this office to maintain the consistency for which it strives," the memo said.

Zappala, a Democrat, acknowledged that his May 18 email "focused on a particular attorney" and said it was "because that attorney's allegation of systemic racism" in the district attorney's office was the first that he had heard.

"However, this Office's review of plea offers made to only one attorney and only about racism will not necessarily achieve the goals of consistency in treatment of all defendants or avoiding false claims of discrimination," he told his deputies in the June 6 memo, which does not mention Raiford by name.

Zappala released a transcript Thursday of 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. Raiford asked the judge to go on the record at the end of the hearing and discussed at length disparities in how Black people are treated by police — locally and nationally — and in the criminal justice system at large. He told the judge that he was not accusing the prosecutors who handled that case of acting inappropriately.

Five days later, Zappala sent an email to his deputy attorneys in which he wrote: "Effective immediately, in all matters involving Attorney Milton Raiford, no plea offers are to be made. The cases may proceed on the information as filed, whether by general plea, non-jury or jury trial. Withdrawal of any charges must be approved by the front office."

Raiford did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, was among those who criticized Zappala's initial policy.

"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," he said in a statement.

Shuford said that district attorneys are among the most powerful people in the criminal justice system, who have the power to choose charges and what criminal proceedings stem from those charges.

He called for "full accountability" of Zappala and his office, as well as for a "swift and comprehensive investigation" into Raiford's allegations by the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and the state attorney general.

State Rep. Emily Kinkead, a Democrat, said last week that Zappala "betrayed his oath of office."

"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 said Wednesday.

She and 10 other members of Allegheny County's state House delegation sent a letter to Zappala on Wednesday condemning his policy and demanding it be rescinded.

They said that while they "individually differ on the severity of punishment" Zappala should face, they call on him "to publicly commit to enacting policies" that seek justice fairly and impartially; to formally apologize to Raiford and to residents; and to allow a special prosecutor to review cases his office handled that involved Raiford and other attorneys who may have agreed with Raiford's statements regarding how defendants were treated.

Mike Manko, Zappala's spokesman, declined to comment Monday.

"His only comment is the statement that was previously posted," Manko said.