Dems in Pa. attorney general race battle over criminal justice issues affecting black community

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    State Sen. Anthony Williams and other Philadelphia political and religious leaders endorse Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala for Pennsylvania attorney general. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    State Sen. Anthony Williams and other Philadelphia political and religious leaders endorse Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala for Pennsylvania attorney general. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    In Pennsylvania, two white Democrats running for state attorney general are battling over criminal justice issues affecting the African-American community.

    It all started when Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s campaign ran this ad featuring video of the Texas state trooper pulling over Sandra Bland, a black woman who died later in police custody, and a clip of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man from South Carolina running away from the white officer who shot him in the back. It also shows surveillance footage of Janay Rice, then-fiancee of NFL player Raymond Rice, cowering after he hit her in an elevator in Atlantic City. 

    “He didn’t need a traffic stop in Texas, a shooting in South Carolina or an elevator in Atlantic City,” the ad says.

    It goes on to tout Zappala’s 18-year record as district attorney, including including the conviction of John Charmo, a white Pittsburgh Housing Authority police officer who shot an unarmed black man named Jerry Jackson during a high-speed chase in 1995. Zappala reopened the case in 1999 after new evidence surfaced in a lawsuit filed by Jackson’s family and charged Charmo with homicide. Zappala eventually cut a deal with Charmo, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 2001. Charmo spent a total of 11 months in prison.

    In the ad, Zappala claims he is the “only DA in Pennsylvania to convict an on-duty police officer of criminal homicide.”

    Last Thursday, black clergy supporting Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro — the Democratic frontrunner in the attorney general race — slammed Zappala for pandering to black voters and questioned his record on police-involved shootings.

    “We are very sensitive about the images of black suffering,” said Marshall Mitchell, pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown. “We are also concerned about the cheapening of life in the black community.”

    Mitchell and others also expressed concerns about the case of Kevin Lockett, a black man who was beaten by five white men at a train station last spring. Four of the five men have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and were sentenced to probation. The fifth man has pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and other charges and will be sentenced in May.

    At a press conference in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Zappala marshaled his supporters — including African-American religious leaders, state Sen. Anthony Williams and Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. — to defend his record and the ad.

    “I don’t want to see this campaign divided based on race, nor was it intended to create issues strictly along those lines,” Zappala said. 

    Earlier that morning, Zappala’s campaign released a second ad, very similar to the first, but eliminating images and references to the deaths of Bland and Scott. 

    Williams, who praised him for being willing to “speak truth to power” by using the images, dismissed the notion Zappala was now backtracking. 

    “From my perspective and the reason why we’re here supporting him is because he did take those risks,” he said. “Whether you make a modification to an ad or not really, frankly doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

    Campaign spokesman Marty Marks said the original ad is still airing online and on television along with the second.

    Asked about the reason for another similar ad, Marks said in a statement the campaign received a letter on Friday afternoon from an attorney representing Sandra Bland’s estate requesting it stop using Bland’s image and expressing concern the campaign was implying the Bland family had endorsed Zappala.

    “Because, Sandra Bland’s image is not depicted in the ad, and the Zappala campaign does not in any way, shape or form imply their endorsement — we will continue to let the ad speak for itself, along with others from our campaign,” said Marks, who took a shot at Shapiro for using his advertising dollars to tout political endorsements. 

    Shapiro is also hitting the airwaves with an ad featuring Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke.

    “I’m backing Josh Shapiro for attorney general because things have to change,” Clarke says. “We need criminal justice reform because our prisons are far too overcrowded.”

    Shapiro and Zappala are running against a third Democratic candidate, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli. Two Republicans, state Sen. John Rafferty and former Executive Deputy Attorney General Joseph Peters, are also running to replace Kathleen Kane, who declined to run for a second term. The primary is April 26. 

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