Williams’ ‘White boys’ comment spurs action, Zappala to look into judicial bias

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Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala said he would investigate concerns of racial bias raised after Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams Jr. refused a plea agreement last week.

Williams made national headlines when he declined a plea deal for a first time offender because he said prosecutors only make those deals for “White boys.”

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JUDGE JOSEPH K. WILLIAMS

Williams, who recused himself from the case, declined to talk to the New Pittsburgh Courier regarding his statement.

“I don’t see a racial component here, but if a judge raises the issue, it’s incumbent upon me to look into it,” said Zappala. “Judge Williams is in a responsible position, so we take this seriously.”

Williams made his comments Oct. 5 when presented with a plea deal for Jeffery McGowan, 24, of Franklin Park, who had initially been charged with aggravated assault for putting his hands on a police officer after a traffic stop. The plea was to reduce the charge to disorderly conduct.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, when presented with the plea agreement, Williams said prosecutor Brian Catanzarite “comes up with, I think, ridiculous pleas whenever it’s a young White guy.”

“I’m just telling you what my observation is,” said Williams. “If this had been a Black kid who did the same thing, we wouldn’t be talking about three months probation.”

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STEPHEN ZAPPALA

When defense attorney Giuseppe Roselli asked if he was rejecting the plea because McGowan is White, Williams reportedly said it wasn’t because he is White but because “it’s a ridiculous plea that only goes to White boys that come into this court for the same facts, and I’m not going for it.”

After Williams’ recusal, McGowan’s case was assigned to Judge Randy Todd, who approved the plea deal.

Zappala said as a result he has asked President Judge Jeffrey Manning to add a defendant’s race and gender to the criteria examined during the case review proceedings. Currently, he said, a committee that includes the president judge, administrative judges and representatives from Zappala’s office, county police Superintendent Charles Moffat’s office and jail Warden Ramone Rustin’s office randomly selects cases to examine for errors.“They look at things like was there a line-up, fingerprints, was scientific evidence collected, were proper procedures followed,” Zappala said. “I’ve asked Judge Manning to add race and gender to those criteria.”

Williams’ remarks were reported by MSNBC, and shortly after spread across the Internet. Though conservative web-site commenters generally chided Williams for the appearance of bias, Internet commentary was entirely negative. A veteran Philadelphia police officer, who runs a blog using the name Wyatt Earp, said though Williams probably should not have made his remarks in open court, he is right:

“Deals like these would usually be offered to White defendants before Black ones, but a district attorney worth his salt would ask the officer before offering the pleas—especially in an assault on police case. The district attorney in this case is not a racist; he’s just trying to raise his clearance rate. I don’t think Judge Williams is a racist, either.”

Most local attorneys and judges contacted by the New Pittsburgh Courier declined comment on Williams’ remarks. Attorney Paul Ellis, however, said he sees nothing wrong with Williams making his remarks in open court.

“The bias and adverse impact in the criminal justice system is well known and well documented, so he can’t be blamed for making an observation,” said Ellis. “I think it took courage to say it. I’ve known Joe for years, and there’s no way he’s racist. While people can debate the choice of venue for his remarks, the substance of what he said was accurate. If that’s where the injustice takes place, why not speak there.”

Likewise, Senior Magisterial District Judge Edward Tibbs doesn’t have a problem with Williams speaking out in court, recalling that former President Judge Robert Dauer complained about problems with the system in court all the time.

“I respect Judge Williams, it’s his opinion. I’m sure there are those who agree and those who don’t, but it’s a man-made system, so it needs some work from time to time,” he said. “If a judge sees a problem with any part of the system, it should be addressed. For him to have made that remarks, it must have been bothering him for some time.”

Williams, 58, is the only African-American judge in the Common Pleas Criminal Division. He won election to a full term in November after being appointed by Gov. Edward G. Rendell to fill the unexpired term of (now) Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com).

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