Editorial | DA Zappala acted unethically, must resign

Systemic racism is an undeniable problem in America, especially in the criminal justice system.

According to the American Bar Association, Black people make up 13.4% of the population, but compose 22% of fatal police shootings, 47% of wrongful conviction exonerations and 35% of individuals executed by the death penalty. Sentences for Black men are, on average, nearly 20% longer than their white counterparts for identical charges. Rather topically, they also tend to receive more severe plea bargains for misdemeanor charges, which often include the acceptance of a criminal record and probation.

Whether Stephen Zappala, the Allegheny County district attorney, knows this and actively tries to perpetuate it or simply denies its existence remains to be seen. But we do know that he has a distaste for those who point out systemic racism.

Zappala sent out an email on May 18 barring his deputy prosecutors from offering plea deals to clients of local attorney Milton Raiford, who accused the DA’s office of systemic racism at a hearing on May 13.

For this, Zappala must resign. No amount of backpedaling, policy revision or investigation can restore legitimacy and faith in his office until he does so. We also encourage local figures to call for Zappala’s resignation — Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and de facto Mayor-elect Ed Gainey have all stopped short of doing so.

Zappala’s action raises some intuitive ethical alarms, but are even more inappropriate under legal scrutiny and precedent. Raiford’s clients are facing the frightening possibility of being ripped away from their homes, families and livelihoods. Zappala couldn’t see past his own ego to consider how unilaterally denying plea deals might affect the very people he’s obligated to, as the Allegheny County DA’s website puts it, “protect the rights of.”

There is precedent for DAs facing formal consequences for discriminating against certain lawyers and their clients. An Oregon Supreme Court case from 1976 resulted in a public reprimand of a DA who behaved similarly to Zappala. Furthermore, his actions are blatantly unlawful and also violate the First Amendment, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. One would think that a district attorney would be concerned with constitutionality before perceived slights.

Showing a lack of regard for the seriousness of his actions, Zappala has reacted to condemnations from lawyers, politicians and activists in a callous and delayed manner, only rescinding the policy of denying Raiford’s clients plea deals five days after the story first broke. Up until then, he had defended it through a hollow memo and claimed that he was simply fulfilling Raiford’s requests by forgoing plea deals.

Besides that, he’s been silent. Zappala seems to think of this debacle as an inconvenience rather than a reckoning with fundamental disparities in legal outcomes for Black defendants. Raiford’s 20 transcribed pages of grievances were described by Zappala’s office as a “convoluted critical diatribe” and “unprofessional conduct” that amounted to a false accusation of racism.

Such a dismissive attitude suggests a lack of fitness for office. That a prosecutor acted in such a way would seem to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Allegheny County residents deserve better.