A Pennsylvania prosecutor defends his decision to stop offering plea deals to clients of a black defense attorney who accused the attorney’s office of racial bias in court last month.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. on Thursday released a note which he sent to his deputies on May 18 telling them not to offer any plea deals to clients of lawyer Milton Raiford over what Zappala described as Raiford’s “convoluted critical rant”.
Zappala, a Democrat, told deputy prosecutors they needed permission from the “front office” to drop the charges against Raiford’s clients and that any discussions with Raiford needed to be “memorized.”
The note was sent five days after Raiford told a judge he believed the district attorney’s office and the justice system in general were “consistently racist.”
Zappala’s note, which was first reported on Wednesday by The Pittsburgh Tribune review, was convicted by 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 troubling.
“District attorneys are among the most powerful people in the criminal justice system,” Shuford wrote in a Press release this week. “They have the power to determine what charges are laid against an individual and what criminal prosecutions flow from those charges.”
“Indeed, retaliation against a lawyer who complains of racism in the prosecutor’s office by refusing to offer plea deals to his clients is in itself evidence of bias,” Shuford said.
Zappala’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on Friday. Raiford could not be immediately reached at the numbers indicated for him.
Zappala faces calls to resign from State Representative Emily Kinkead, who tweeted Wednesday: “He just ordered his office to punish the clients of a lawyer who has criticized the criminal justice system as a whole (not just the prosecutor’s office) for being ‘consistently racist’.”
“He has just admitted that his office dispenses justice differently depending on who is involved in the case and not the facts of the case. Zappala has betrayed his oath of office,” she wrote in a separate tweet.
Zappala’s policy was prompted by remarks Raiford made on May 13 in a Pittsburgh courtroom after a hearing in which his client pleaded guilty to aggravated assault to a stabbing in 2019, according to a transcription Zappala was released on Thursday. Raiford told the judge he was not accusing prosecutors who handled the 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 topics such as racism in the criminal justice system and how the courts have responded to the pandemic. He also said that Allegheny County, or Pittsburgh, Pa. In particular, “is the worst place to live” if you are African American in health care and employment and Afro -Americans are moving because of this.
He said African Americans are six times more likely to be stopped by a police officer during a pretext traffic stop “than anyone in the whole county,” which he said has been documented. by a law professor who teaches police behavior at the University of Pittsburgh.
At one point the judge asked Raiford, “Are you saying that there is some sort of systematic plea arrangement with the DA’s office that the darker your skin, the more your plea deal?” is bad ? “
Raiford replied: “Your honor, I think the prosecutor’s office is systematically racist. And I think the criminal justice system is systematically racist.”
Raiford told The Tribune-Review he made the comments because he was frustrated with what he sees as systemic racism in Pittsburgh and the requests he made months earlier to meet with Zappala for discussing 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 to reduce the number of black men in custody, it is shortsighted for our attorney not to make a statement on the action he is going to take.”
In his declaration On Thursday, Zappala said his office “strives to carry out its mission with the integrity and respect” that residents deserve and that its policy is to ensure “consistent, evidence-based decisions and avoid false allegations of racism “against his lawyers.