Prosecutor outlines handling of bias in plea deal assertions

The head prosecutor in Pittsburgh has expounded on his policy regarding plea deals, days after it became public that he told his staff to no longer offer them to clients of a Black criminal defense lawyer who called the office “systematically racist.”

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. made public on Monday a new memo to all prosecutors that says his office must investigate any claim by a defense lawyer or unrepresented defendant who raise concerns that a plea offer shows racial or other bias.

Zappala’s three-paragraph memo, dated Sunday, notes that his May 18 directive pertained only to criminal defense attorney Milton E. Raiford. It required deputy district attorneys to get a supervisor’s permission to withdraw charges against any Raiford client and said that discussions with Raiford had to be “memorialized.”

The new memo says when a lawyer or defendant claims plea talks have treated them differently because of “protected status,” the prosecutor has to look into it and report what has occurred to their higher-ups.

Zappala spokesman Mike Manko said the new policy rescinds the May 18 instruction and makes Raiford’s clients again eligible for plea bargain offers.

Manko said Zappala, an elected Democrat, was not available for further comment. A message seeking comment was also left for Raiford.

Raiford told The Associated Press last week that Zappala was “enforcing something in America that’s wicked and evil and discriminatory — racism.”

Raiford’s comments in court on May 13 resulted in Zappala establishing a new policy that ruled out pleas deals for his clients.

After a client of Raiford’s pleaded guilty to stabbing a man in the abdomen and assaulting a jail guard, 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 a judge on May 13 he thinks the county prosecutor’s office and the criminal justice system are “systematically racist” and that he was “not eager to run my clients back into the guillotine.”

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