Why Allegheny County needs a new District Attorney
Soon, voters will decide whether to re-elect District Attorney Steve Zappala
to a seventh term as Allegheny County’s chief local prosecutor.
Several incidents in Zappala’s current term show why we need a new DA.
Let’s start with Zappala’s attack on defense attorney Milton
Raiford. Raiford angered Zappala when he raised concerns about systemic
racism in the justice system. In retaliation, Zappala issued this order
to his employees: “Effective immediately, in all matters involving Attorney Milton Raiford,
no plea offers are to be made.”
To place Zappala’s vindictive order in context, it’s helpful
to understand how the prosecution process works. 97% of criminal cases
are resolved through plea bargains. The prosecutor holds the power to
set the terms of plea bargains. During the plea-bargaining process, the
prosecutor often agrees to a reduced sentence, such as probation instead
of jail time.
This means that the practical effect of Zappala’s order was this:Raiford’s clients, based solely on their choice of attorney, would
be more likely to be ripped away from their families and sent to prison.
A courageous Zappala employee leaked the unethical order to a reporter.
Following a media firestorm, Zappala revoked the order – though
he never admitted wrongdoing or apologized.
Here’s why this story should matter to voters.
First, Zappala plainly abused the power of the prosecutor’s office.
That, in itself, should disqualify him from serving another term. And
if a Zappala employee hadn’t leaked the discriminatory policy, the
public may never have known about it – which begs the question,
what other unethical policies did Zappala implement that never came to light?
Secondly, as a result of Zappala’s retaliatory tactics, people who
work inside the legal system are afraid to speak freely out of fear of
retribution. These tactics, in turn, silence the voices of those most
likely to see injustice within that system.
Zappala’s response after the Raiford story broke was especially revealing.
In a letter to his employees, Zappala claimed that Raiford’s “allegation
of systemic racism in this Office was the first that I ever heard of.”
Notably, the concept of systemic racism refers to a system of laws and
policies that impacts communities of color unequally. If Zappala truly
did not know that the justice system impacts Black people unequally, then
he has no grasp of what goes on in our criminal courts on a day-to-day
basis - because the statistics show striking racial inequalities.
In Allegheny County, a white defendant convicted of the same charge as
a Black defendant is 41% less likely to be sentenced to jail. Black girls
are 13 times more likely than white girls to be arrested. As a final example
(there are countless others), Black people account for 90% of marijuana
possession arrests in the City of Pittsburgh – despite similar usage
rates to white people and making up just 23% of the overall population.
A separate troubling incident involved the Judge Tranquilli scandal, and
Zappala’s failed response to it. This episode reflects a broader
failure of transparency and accountability in Zappala’s office.
As background, Mark Tranquilli was a local criminal court judge who resigned
on the eve of his own ethics trial. Tranquilli is closely connected to
Zappala because, before Tranquilli became a judge, he worked in Zappala’s
DA office for 15 years, heading Zappala’s homicide unit for 8 of them.
Tranquilli’s misconduct included the following: he was upset after
a jury returned a not-guilty verdict in his courtroom because he wanted
a guilty verdict. He directed the case prosecutor and defense attorney
to meet him in his judicial chambers. In the tirade that followed, Tranquilli
– who, as judge, was supposed to serve without bias – used
racial epithets when referring to a Black woman who served on the jury.
Tranquilli insultingly added that the juror probably had a “baby
daddy” who “sling[s] heroin.” Tranquilli even scolded
the prosecutor for allowing the Black woman to serve on the jury.
A core principle in our justice system is that potential jurors cannot
be excluded based on race. This helps to ensure fairness in our American
system of trial by jury. Tranquilli’s conduct violated that principle.
The incident becomes more disturbing when one considers that, over the
course of his career, Tranquilli prosecuted or judged thousands of cases
involving Black victims or defendants. Imagine how they felt when they
heard about Tranquilli’s racist rant in the news.
Here’s why this story should also matter to voters. Common sense
tells us that the Judge Tranquilli who embraced harmful racial stereotypes,
and believed it was okay to racially discriminate against jurors, likely
held those same beliefs when he led Zappala’s DA office for a decade.
In response to the Tranquilli scandal, Zappala should have committed to
an independent investigation that probed whether racial bias infected
Tranquilli’s prosecutions, and publicly shared the investigation’s results.
Zappala failed to take those simple steps.
We cannot achieve equal justice under law without advancing racial justice.
Zappala has proven that, under his direction, the DA’s office is
unwilling to confront racial inequities. This election season, we should
hold Zappala accountable by voting him out of office.
Frank Walker and
The authors are criminal law attorneys with extensive experience working
in Allegheny County’s court system. Printed in the
March 22, 2023 edition of
New Pittsburgh Courier