A Pennsylvania judge ordered a Black defense attorney to be removed from a case after the lawyer said he would not represent his client in a bench trial until the county district attorney apologized, resigned, or recused himself from cases involving his clients, Pittsburgh-based news outlet the Tribune-Review reported.
As previously reported by Law&Crime, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. (D) last month sparked outrage after he reportedly forbade all of the deputy prosecutors in his office from offering plea deals to the clients of attorney Milton Raiford, who criticized the prosecutor’s office as being “systematically racist” during a court appearance.
Five days after Raiford’s diatribe against the system, Zappala allegedly sent an office-wide email stating that cases involving Raiford’s clients “may proceed on the information as filed, whether by general plea, nonjury or jury trial,” but said that effective immediately, “no plea offers are to be made.”
Zappala’s decision was condemned by legal experts as depriving Raiford of his livelihood and his clients of their right to counsel. Local politicians also condemned Zappala, with several calling for the DA’s resignation or removal.
According to the Tribune-Review’s report, Raiford on Wednesday morning appeared before Common Pleas Judge Anthony M. Mariani, but refused to allow the proceedings to move forward until Zappala was no longer involved in the case, or at least met with him to discuss the situation personally.
Holding copies of the Bible and the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, Raiford reportedly spent several minutes discussing theology, racism, and the criminal justice system, reiterating that the latter was “systemically racist,” and claiming that Zappala had “personally threatened me.”
“Those of you who sit up there have to come in contact with your own brokenness and weakness and have respect for those who come before you who are broken and weak themselves,” Raiford reportedly said. “This building is a cesspool of white privilege.”
Raiford, who is a pastor, added that Zappala “hadn’t repented” for his actions.
Judge Mariani reportedly told Raiford, however, that he would not “referee” the conflict between Raiford and Zappala’s office. The judge repeatedly implored him to defend his client, Vanessa Williams, whose bench trial on charges of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence was slated to begin, but each time Raiford refused, per the Tribune-Review.
“You’re asking me to stand by an oath you violate every day,” Raiford said to Mariani. He also said he could not continue with the proceedings as long as “an agent of Stephen Zappala” was prosecuting the case, adding, “I’m trying to help get you guys cleaned up.”
During one exchange, Raiford reportedly refused to reconsider his position, telling Mariani, “I’m not going to play that game. I’m not going to dance for you.”
After noting that Raiford was a “good attorney and advocate,” Mariani finally concluded that Raiford had to be removed from the case, saying no lawyer or judge should “have the right to stop the system cold.”
When Raiford said he was “doing what God has commissioned” him to do, Mariani accused him of grandstanding for his own benefit.
“You, sir, are reneging on your obligation and promise to Ms. Williams,” Mariani said, per the Tribune-Review. “You’re using this as a way to advance your other interests.”
[image via WPXI-TV screengrab]
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