by Rob Taylor Jr.

A verbal battle between local Black attorney Milton Raiford and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. has turned into a firestorm for Zappala that’s hotter than Pittsburgh’s recent heat wave.

Black Political Empowerment Project Chairman and CEO Tim Stevens wants Zappala to resign or be removed from his post. So does State Rep. Summer Lee, whose legislative district includes parts of the Mon Valley.

State Rep. Ed Gainey, who is also the Democratic nominee for mayor of Pittsburgh, demands that Zappala apologize for his actions and “open his office to any investigation into this matter to preserve public confidence in the conduct of office.”

The Tribune-Review published a story on June 2 which revealed that Zappala, through an email sent on May 18, had ordered all of his deputy prosecutors not to offer plea deals to Raiford or any of his clients. Raiford, on May 13, five days prior to Zappala’s email, pulled no punches on his thoughts that the DA’s office was “systematically racist.” He also said the criminal justice system is systematically racist, and that there’s systemic racism entrenched in Pittsburgh. Raiford made the on-the-record comments while in the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani.

ALLEGHENY COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY STEPHEN ZAPPALA JR., the longtime DA whose resignation is now being called for by, among others, Black Political Empowerment Project Chairman and CEO Tim Stevens, and Rep. Summer Lee.

“I just want to say that it is very disheartening that in this county, that we had no comment from the district attorney’s office, no comment from our administrative judge at this division, no comment from the supreme court, who seems like they are totally ignoring which way the wind is blowing nationally, that all of these people are being shot for nothing, all of these people are dying for nothing,” Raiford said, according to court transcripts, first reported by the Tribune-Review. “And we’re trying to get back to normal.”

Many in Pittsburgh’s Black community were taken aback, appalled by Zappala’s actions in response to Raiford’s comments, saying that Zappala abused his power as District Attorney. If Zappala was offended by Raiford’s comments personally, those like Stevens couldn’t believe that Zappala would take actions that could legally hurt Raiford’s clients.

TIM STEVENS, shown at the podium in the photo above, during a press conference, June 3, about Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala Jr.: “The last thing we need in Allegheny County is have a callous District Attorney telling his staff to practice prejudicial behavior against every client of African American attorney Milton Raiford, or any attorney for that matter….It is truly time for another individual to sit in the Office of the District Attorney for Allegheny County. It is time for Mr. Zappala to resign.”

“Are you kidding me?” Stevens said at a press conference in the Hill District, June 3. “Who does Mr. Zappala think he is to outright prejudice every client of an attorney who had the nerve to simply share his honest feelings about justice in Allegheny County?… Our understanding is that Mr. Raiford had been asking for weeks and months, before making his comments, to meet with DA Zappala to share his concerns, but never received a response. Maybe showing such disrespect of an African American attorney who has served clients for many years throughout Western Pennsylvania says something about Mr. Zappala.”

Zappala said via a statement on June 3 that Raiford had “misrepresented to the court a plea offered by another Assistant District Attorney to one of his clients in another case” by saying a plea offer by the DA’s office of 4-8 years for a marijuana charge was excessive. However, Zappala said that particular case also involved weapons charges against the defendant, “which the attorney (Raiford) did not disclose to the court.”

MILTON RAIFORD, the longtime Pittsburgh attorney who called the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office “systematically racist.” (Photo courtesy WTAE-TV)

Zappala’s statement concluded: “In order to ensure that this office makes consistent, evidence-based decisions, and avoid false claims of racism against this Office and its Assistant District Attorneys, I took seriously that attorney’s stated desire not to accept plea offers, and directed my Deputy District Attorneys to memorialize any plea discussions with this attorney and not to offer pleas to that attorney without approval from the front office.”

Still, those like the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania weren’t buying what Zappala was selling.

“It is unethical for a DA to order a blanket ban on offering plea deals to an individual attorney’s clients. It’s also a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. If true, these allegations are deeply disturbing,” the ACLU of Pa.’s executive director, Reggie Shuford, said in a statement.

“District attorneys are some of the most powerful people in the criminal legal system. They have the power to determine what charges are filed against an individual and what criminal proceedings stem from those charges. The allegation that DA Zappala instructed his subordinates to outright refuse to offer plea deals to clients of an attorney who criticized the DA’s office underscores that vast power. 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. We call for full accountability for Mr. Zappala and his office and a swift and comprehensive investigation into these allegations by the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and Attorney General Josh Shapiro.”

Elizabeth Hughes, president of the Allegheny County Bar Association, said in a statement that the organization was “disheartened to learn of the alleged e-mail communication issued by Allegheny County District Attorney, Stephen Zappala, to his deputy prosecutors, directing them to refuse to offer any plea deals to clients of a specific attorney who expressed dissatisfaction with the District Attorney’s office and the criminal justice system. This alleged missive from the District Attorney undermines access to justice and interferes with the rights guaranteed to criminal defendants under the Sixth Amendment by effectively negating these particular clients’ right to counsel. Should these instructions from District Attorney Zappala be carried out, this would be unethical and retaliatory to criminal defendants based on ideological differences between the District Attorney and their defense counsel. Such a response by the District Attorney only operates to promote unequal treatment in the criminal justice system. The purpose of the Office of the District Attorney is to serve the people of this Commonwealth. The ACBA stands against any action that unfairly weighs the scales of justice or deprives any individual of rights guaranteed to all of us under the Constitution.”

On Monday, June 7, Zappala released an “amended” policy regarding plea offers. “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 then said the Assistant DA would investigate the facts, and, if necessary, bring the matter to the attention of their supervising Deputy DA or Zappala’s office for aid in the investigation and input on the appropriate plea offer.

Zappala saw his first real competition for the DA’s seat in the 2019 election, when Turahn Jenkins, an African American, ran against him. Jenkins, who was formerly the chief deputy director for the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office, lost the election, 59 to 41 percent, but some in Pittsburgh’s Black community praised Jenkins for getting that high of a percentage in a county that’s just 14 percent Black, and against a White person who held the office for 20 years.

A year prior to that election, Zappala had been criticized for his office’s handling of the prosecution of former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld, who shot and killed 17-year-old Black teen Antwon Rose II as Rose was running away from the officer. Rosfeld was found not guilty on all charges in March 2019.

Who knows how this latest controversy surrounding Zappala could affect his future as Allegheny County District Attorney. If it were up to Stevens, the B-PEP Chairman and CEO, however, Zappala would be out.

“The last thing we need in Allegheny County is have a callous District Attorney telling his staff to practice prejudicial behavior against every client of African American attorney Milton Raiford, or any attorney for that matter,” Stevens said, June 3. “All one has to do is to review the percentage of Black residents who reside in Allegheny County, to consider that there just might be some problems with the justice system of Allegheny County. For the District Attorney to potentially ‘pile on’ to these horrible statistics by not allowing any of Mr. Raiford’s clients to ever qualify for a so-called ‘plea deal’ has to be some form of District Attorney misconduct. His behavior is callous, unethical and prejudicial. It is truly time for another individual to sit in the Office of the District Attorney for Allegheny County. It is time for Mr. Zappala to resign.”