By Kierran Young
Pittsburgh Current Political Columnist
In 1992, while defending a white man accused of ethnically intimidating a bi-racial couple, Lisa Middleman struck two African American women from the jury. Middleman is running as an Independent in November against Democratic Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.
Other media has written about the incident, but I wanted to check things out for myself. In reading through the transcript, I’m struck speechless by the argument she used to accomplish their removal.
In the transcript Middleman told the court, “The next two are sort of a pair. One of these ladies – – this is a mean thing to say, one of these ladies was very fat, and I remember seeing that these two women were sitting together because they were the — I think they were — no, there was another black women — when I initially walked into the jury room, I surveyed the jury, looked to see who we could select from. These two women were in the right-hand side and they were talking to one another, and I remember again because this one woman was very fat, and then when the jury was seated, these two women were together again in the -. They were still talking to one another during jury selection. And to be honest with you, this sounds very conceited, I don’t like fat women on my jury because I don’t want them to be jealous that I’m not fat.”
She continued, “I mean, I don’t think — I don’t have fat ugly people on my jury because I don’t — it sounds like that commercial, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, I don’t want fat, ugly women on my jury because I don’t want them to dislike me, and not be worried about the facts of the case, and I can’t remember which one of these women was the fat one, but they seemed to be friends, and I was concerned about the one not liking me, and I was concerned about them being a block and…”
The judge then asked, “Are there no heavyset white women?”
Middleman replied, “I don’t think there was anybody even close. There were some plumper people, no fat people.”
However, the assistant district attorney called Middleman out for the real reason behind her objection: “I think that Ms. Middleman was more concerned about the fact that if she had any blacks on this jury, that could be a problem for her, and therefore she used four of her five peremptory challenges to strike those jurors.”
But Middleman stuck to her guns: “ I do not like big, fat, sloppy people on my jury — If you’re that big and you’re that fat, you don’t care a lot about what you look like, and you don’t care about a lot of things. Being that big and fat shows a lack of discipline, a lack of something. I would add that maybe that’s discriminatory, and it probably is, it’s not — people can’t always help being big and fat. … this is essentially a reasonable doubt case. You have to have precise people who will understand reasonable doubt.”
After the incident became public, Middleman issued an apology on her campaign website August 8.
“I’m so sorry and upset that remarks I made have hurt others. The content of the rhetoric is obviously untrue and shameful. There is no excuse for using this outrageous language, even satirically,” Middleman wrote. “My comments fed into fatphobia and anti-blackness and there is no place for that type of sentiment anywhere.”
If Lisa Middleman becomes the District Attorney of Allegheny County, she will have to make decisions affecting the lives of African Americans. She is pledging to reform a justice system that incarcerates people of color at disproportionate rates. She will have the power to charge and not charge suspects, and she’ll have substantial influence over how juries will be selected in the county. In her mea culpa, Middleman said she was being satirical. However, she seems pretty serious in the transcript.
Middleman’s decades-too-late apology is a misleading and failed attempt to cover up her complicity in a system that continues to brutalize people of color and the systemic racism that is fostered throughout the criminal justice system.
I can’t accept Middleman’s answers and neither should the African American community. I think Ms. Middleman’s non-apology and her lack of willingness to start a dialogue with the African American community is not only disappointing, but extremely alarming as well. If progressive Democrats continue to look past the African American community while trying to field candidates, they will never win. We know from past experience that if African Americans aren’t at the table, then we’re usually on the menu.