By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Across Allegheny County workers spent their lunch hours at their desks or in restaurants. However, defense attorney and independent candidate for Allegheny County District Attorney Lisa Middleman spent hers in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse at an “emergency” press conference where she and supporters condemned District Attorney Stephen Zappala for what they call “negligence” and “incompetence.”
Over the weekend, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that four teenagers charged in a 2017 Hill District shooting had been indicted and imprisoned despite substantial evidence that they weren’t at the scene of the crime. The teens spent 15 months in jail before being released in September. While addressing the crowd Middleman told attendees that pursuing the case despite alibis supported by records by the ridesharing company, Lyft, witnesses, and photographs made the community a less-safe place.
“A prosecutor has an ethical responsibility to the accused, the victim, and the people of Allegheny County,” Middleman said. “Stephen Zappala has failed in that responsibility.”
Middleman added that in addition to the ordeal the teenagers endured, the real shooters in the case that left three children wounded remained at large. Drawing on her experience in the Public Defender’s office, Middleman lamented that under its current regime the District Attorney’s office has put a desire to win over justice.
“Not only have four children lost 15 months of their lives, but the police have lost 15 months to locate violent criminals,” she said.
Middleman said that while she wasn’t at liberty to divulge the details, she had spoken to the attorneys of the accused and believed that lawsuits were likely to follow. Furthermore, she said, the situation could easily have been avoided had the District Attorney’s office not put their faith in “shoddy” identification procedures of an “inexperienced” detective. Middleman also condemned the grand jury process which she believed “deprived” the accused of the opportunity to point out the shortcomings of the commonwealth’s case.
“All of those things have left us vulnerable to another shooting,” she said. “It is the district attorney’s job to review the investigation by the police and to use her knowledge of the law to determine if charges are appropriate or if further investigation is necessary. It is her job to make sure that any investigation that needs to take place, does take place.”
Middleman isn’t the first candidate to challenge Zappala this year, who has gained his share of criticism over the years. In the wake of the shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose Jr by a police officer, longtime public defender Turahn Jenkins made a bid for the position only to fall short with only 41 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Throughout her campaign, Middleman has marketed herself as a reformer and told those present that criminal justice reform was a bipartisan issue. In addition to her endorsements from the Libertarian Party of Allegheny County, One Pennsylvania, and Democracy for America, Allegheny County Council Democratic nominee Olivia Bennett joined the proceedings to publicly endorse Middleman while condemning Zappala.
Locally elected officials like state RepSummer Lee (D-Allegheny), Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Deb Gross (D-District 7), and Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones have also endorsed Middleman.
“When I heard about this story it just sounded like more of the same to me,” Bennett told attendees. “In this region, we have been completely underrepresented and not represented in our district attorney’s office. It’s time for that to change”
Bennett believes that Middleman will deliver the change she said the county if elected.
During her remarks, Middleman herself further admonished the DA’s office for being structured to defend the office itself as opposed to the people of Allegheny County. On top of that, she accused Zappala of caring more about his political future than seeking justice.
The ultimate way to protest, Middleman said, would be to vote in the November 5, election where she’ll face off with Zappala a Democrat and longtime incumbent.
Although Middleman had many harsh criticisms for the Zappala himself, she asserted that it was problematic that the DA’s office had 29 investigators on staff and none of them managed to verify the alibis of the accused.
In addition to reforms such as ending cash bail and advocacy for police accountability, Middleman added that if elected she wouldn’t require all 29 investigators believing that although some investigators were needed law enforcement was qualified to handle such matters. More than that if elected Middleman promised reforms that would serve victims, witnesses, the accused, and marginalized individuals.
“Don’t wait until it’s your child locked up in the county jail for a year and a half,” Middleman warned. “There are some very good prosecutors working in the district attorney’s office, unfortunately, the culture there has become one of ‘win at all costs’ and ‘get as many convictions as you can’.”
The District Attorney’s office did not respond to the Pittsburgh Current’s request for comment.
Update, Oct. 8, 2:20 p.m.
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, released the following statement:
“District Attorney Stephen Zappala likes to present himself as a reformer, but his record calls that into question. Part of being a reformer is being willing to defend one’s record in a public setting. With the revelation that Mr. Zappala allowed four innocent teenagers to spend 15 months in prison and his meager acknowledgment that the wrongful detention was ‘… my responsibility, I guess,’ the fight for greater accountability from prosecutors to their constituents could not be more pressing.
“To that end, we hope that Mr. Zappala will accept the invitation to attend a public candidates’ forum scheduled for Monday, October 14. He refused to attend a forum in the run-up to this spring’s primary election and, to date, has refused to join the one scheduled a week from today. The residents of Allegheny County deserve better.”