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DA Stephen Zappala Responds After Stopping Plea Deals With Attorney Who Called His Office 'Systematically Racist'

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is weighing in on a decision by Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala's office to stop offering plea deals to clients of local attorney Milton Raiford. The DA also shed new light on why he set this policy in a statement late Thursday afternoon.

In the memo, DA Zappala says to no longer give plea deals to Raiford's clients. But in a statement from the DA's office, they say that's because Raiford himself said he didn't want any more plea agreements from the DA.

In the 44-page court transcript from a hearing on May 13, you can see where attorney Milton Raiford calls out systemic racism in the local criminal justice system, saying, "your honor, I think the DA's office is systematically racist." Later he says he's not going for these "crazy plea agreements."

In a memo sent to deputy district attorneys five days later, Zappala said he would take that request seriously and not offer pleas to Raiford.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto calls it an "abuse of office."

"This is a direct action against an individual that's taken that individual's livelihood from him," said Peduto.

Peduto accused the DA of also attacking the Mayor's Office over the past 8 years and says this is not surprising to him.

"This is the way of doing business with the DA's office in Allegheny County," said Peduto.

The Pittsburgh Black Lawyers Alliance is now calling for a full investigation, saying this policy humiliates Raiford.

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In a statement, it says: "Zappala's use of his position and power to deny due process to Raiford's clients perpetuates the systemic inequality and racism that Raiford called to eradicate and demonstrates that under Zappala's watch, people get the process that Zappala believes they are due, and not the due process required and guaranteed by our Constitution."

The organization says Zappala's decision violates his oath as an attorney, as a district attorney and makes him unfit for office.

The Black Political Empowerment Project held a news conference Thursday evening on Zappala's decision.

B-PEP Chairman and CEO Tim Stevens said the policy has to be some form of DA misconduct and says that Zappala's behavior is callous, unethical and prejudicial. He made it clear that he thinks Zappala should resign.

"Who does Mr. Zappala think he is to outright prejudice every client of an attorney who had the nerve simply to share his honest feelings about justice in Allegheny County?" said Stevens.

William Anderson is the chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Black Caucus and a member of B-PEP. He said attorney Raiford got him a plea deal over 20 years ago.

"Mr. Raiford was my umbrella, Mr. Raiford was my security blanket and was the reason I am not incarcerated or even dead today," Anderson said.

"This is the most outrageous abuse of office that I believe I have seen in my entire life," he added.

State Rep. Ed Gainey, the Democratic nominee for the mayor of Pittsburgh, released a statement, saying:

"Systemic racism in our criminal justice system is nothing new, but the progress made in recent years to acknowledge and begin the process of reckoning with it are difficult but necessary steps toward a more just future. District Attorney Zappala's decision to retaliate against criminal defendants because their attorney gave voice to the growing consensus about the need for criminal justice reform was a disappointing step backward, and a sign of how much more work remains to be done to deliver on the promise of equal justice for all.

I call on the District Attorney to reverse course on this reckless decision, apologize, and open his office to any investigation into this matter to preserve public confidence in the conduct of the office."

As for Mayor Peduto, he stopped short of saying the DA should resign.

"I won't join the bandwagon of those that just want to put him in a stockade. I would though urge the attorney general and Pennsylvania Supreme Court to speak out today," said Peduto.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued this statement: "You shouldn't be treated differently in our justice system based on who you are or who represents you in court. What has been publicly reported here is concerning; questions of professional conduct and ethical behavior are the responsibility of Pennsylvania's Disciplinary Board."

State Representative Jessica Benham also issued a statement: "This is unacceptable behavior, consistent with the history of this district attorney's office that fails to grapple with the systemic racism in our criminal legal system. DA Zappala should resign."

Meantime, the DA says his office always carries out its duties with integrity and respect to all Allegheny County citizens.

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