This amateur historian recalls when the late Robert “Dixie” Dugan was confronted by then Negro activists, who asked “why do you have no Negroes working for you as assistant district attorneys” in the mid 1960′s responded, “I cannot find any Negroes qualified to serve in that capacity.” Imagine my chagrin, in September of 2011, to read in the Tribune Review, that when queried about the putrid number of African-American assistant district attorneys in the 2011 Allegheny County DA office, Stephen Zappala responded, “I cannot find African-American Lawyers who will work for the salary I offer, for the big firms employ them at a higher salary.” Fifty years, and the Allegheny County district attorney spews the same specious garbage.
I ran into my friend Hop Kendrick yesterday and queried, why has the African-American activist community failed to address this outrageous declaration? Why have the young African-American legal community failed to put its collective foot in Mr. Zappala’s posterior? Why is it that this old Black lawyer has to draw attention to our community’s plight? Why is the most important office in the criminal justice system so lacking in minority input? Why is the office which determines who gets prosecuted and who does not get prosecuted so under representative of the population it prosecutes?
I have labored in the criminal Justice system for almost 35 years and wonder if the African-American community really does give a damn. At least 50 percent of all persons prosecuted in Allegheny County are African-Americans. Should not their prosecutors be representative of their own communities? This district attorney has five, I say five, African-American attorneys, on a staff of more than 80, I say 80, attorneys.
Has he ever looked around his staff area and thought, wow, why is my staff so Caucasian, and the population of Allegheny County is at least 15 per cent African-American?
This issue is particularly sensitive to this writer, as my skills were honed and I was trained as a lawyer under the Great Robert E. Colville. This district attorney suffers in comparison. Robert E. Colville sent word to law school professors, “Send me young African-American law students of promise, I will employ them, assist in their legal training, and will hire them as assistant district attorneys, if they pass muster on graduation.”
I think of a generation of prosecutors, beneficiaries of this process. Leo C. Harper Jr., Louis C. Coles III, Larry Victim, and Judge Timothy K. Lewis, just to name a few. We served proudly, the citizens of Allegheny County and our native community. Why has this district attorney disturbed the pipeline wherein he now claims he cannot find African-Americans to hire as assistant district attorneys.
I would be remiss if I failed to comment on the paucity of African-Americans as supervisors under Mr. Zappala. There have been no African-American supervisors since Judge Kim Clarke ascended to the bench. Ten years and no African-Americans have been promoted until this month. That means no African-Americans have had input into the decision making of the Office of District Attorney.
After all, this is the district attorney who, in response to Judge Joseph Williams’ criticism of the disparate pleas offered Black and White defendants, set up a committee within his office to review all pleas offered on drug cases, with no African-American attorneys on the committee. I have noted these offers have been far more stringent than the previous process wherein the individual assistant district attorneys made their own decisions.
If this sad state is acceptable, the African-American community should continue business as usual; i.e. remain silent on the issue. After all, we Black folks don’t care what happens to our children.
Leo C. Harper Jr. Esq.