PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala is on the hot seat.
Allegations have surfaced claiming his office is no longer offering plea deals to clients of attorney Milton Raiford. The Tribune-Review reports this all came after Raiford called out systemic racism in the local criminal justice system.
As a result, Judge David Cashman will not allow any plea agreement in his courtroom. He said everyone should be treated equally, and he has spoken with the DA’s office to let them know his new policy.
“Somebody’s case should be decided upon its merit, not upon the selection of what council represents the defendant,” Judge Cashman said Wednesday.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised, but I’m not,” criminal defense attorney Turahn Jenkins said.
Jenkins ran for DA in 2019. He and other attorneys are now uniting behind Raiford.
“These problems didn’t just start with this interaction with Milton Raiford. These problems have been permeating for years,” Jenkins told KDKA.
Attorney Blaine Jones questioned how this policy is fair. He wants to know why the DA’s office would try to silence someone trying to call out racism.
Raiford did not want to go on camera but offered this statement:
“I must by virtue of the calling of my life continue to fight for the oppressed, to labor to bring about the world that was seen throughout the eyes of my ancestors and Martin Luther King Jr. I will always speak out on injustice. My prayer for Mr. Zappala is that he repent for possessing mindset that he has and finds the peace that I found.”
“This is a real disadvantage to every potential client of this attorney because virtually all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains,” Pitt law professor David Harris said.
Harris said elected officials need to take criticism and adds this may be unethical by the DA’s office.
“What they can’t do is manipulate the terms with which they deal with the actual cases of real people just cause they don’t like the opinions of the lawyer,” Harris said.
Meanwhile, Jenkins said this has damaged the credibility of the office.
“He represents us. He has to come, and he has to speak with us. That’s the only way these things are going to change,” Jenkins said.
Judge Cashman said he’ll allow plea bargains only when the DA’s office gives them to everyone.
“By treating him differently, you’ve created his client differently. You’ve violated your oath to treat all of these people fairly and impartially,” Judge Cashman said.
So far, the DA’s office has refused to comment. In the meantime, the ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford issued this statement:
“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.
“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.”
Allegheny County Bar Association President Elizabeth Hughes released a statement, saying:
“The Allegheny County Bar Association’s mission is ‘to empower our members; promote a just, accessible, and inclusive judicial system; and serve the community at large.’ We are 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.”
Elected leaders, including Pennsylvania Sens. Summer Lee and Emily Kinkead, have called for the DA to step down.
Stephen Zappala must be removed immediately.
Pass it along.
— Summer Lee (@SummerForPA) June 2, 2021
DA Stephen Zappala needs to resign or be removed immediately.
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." https://t.co/KRBJtG2S49
— Emily Kinkead (@emily4pa20) June 2, 2021