DA defends ending deals with lawyer who called office racist


The elected district attorney in Pittsburgh is defending his decision to stop offering plea deals to clients of a Black criminal 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 May 18 memo sent to staff that immediately halted any plea deal talks with clients of Milton E. Raiford for what Zappala described as Raiford’s “convoluted critical diatribe.”

Zappala, a Democrat, told deputy district attorneys they needed their supervisor’s permission to withdraw charges against Raiford’s clients and any discussions with him must be “memorialized.”

The policy drew condemnation from Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, who called it unethical and deeply disturbing.

“Retaliating against an attorney who complains about racism in the DA’s office by refusing to offer plea agreements to his clients is itself arguable evidence of bias,” Shuford wrote in a release.

Raiford said in a phone interview Thursday that Zappala was “enforcing something in America that’s wicked and evil and discriminatory — racism.”

“There’s a revolution going on in this country,” Raiford told The Associated Press. “People are tired of being stomped on. And people are tired of being afraid of the police that are sworn to protect us. And he’s the chief cop.”

The state attorney general’s office released a statement saying the matters that have been reported publicly are concerning and that “questions of professional conduct and ethical behavior” fall under the state disciplinary board that handles allegations of lawyer misconduct.

Zappala’s policy regarding Raiford’s clients, first reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, was prompted by a May 13 exchange in a Pittsburgh courtroom after a defendant represented by Raiford pleaded guilty to stabbing a man in the abdomen and assaulting a jail guard.

In the transcript released late Thursday by Zappala’s office, Raiford said he was “pretty much appalled, discouraged and dismayed” that Pittsburgh “is the worst place to live if you’re an African American in terms of healthcare, in terms of job, in terms of six times more likely to be arrested by a police officer during a pretextual traffic stop than anybody in the whole country.”

Raiford told the judge he believes Zappala’s office is “systematically racist. And I think the criminal justice system is systematically racist. And I’m not eager to run my clients back into the guillotine.”

He told Judge Anthony Mariani he was putting his concerns on the record during all court proceedings.

“I’m doing it in every case,” Raiford told the judge. “I’m not excluding anybody. I don’t care if it’s a case — anything.”

In his statement Thursday, Zappala said his policy was meant to ensure consistent, evidence-based decisions “and avoid false claims of racism” against his office and its lawyers.

Raiford said Thursday that the new policy violates his clients’ right to due process of law, and that he had thought of Zappala as a friend.

“I just don’t know how this guy with his venomous attitude, I just don’t understand how he’s going to be able to prosecute any of my cases. I don’t understand how he’s going to do that,” Raiford said.

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