An Allegheny County judge rejected a plea deal in a criminal case Tuesday after he accused a prosecutor of only offering deals to “white boys.”
Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams, who is black, rejected a deal to allow a white defendant — Jeffery McGowan, 24, of Franklin Park — to get three months of probation for an incident in which he is accused of trying to fight with police after a traffic stop.
“(Assistant District Attorney Brian) Catanzarite for some reason comes up with I think ridiculous pleas whenever it’s a young white guy,” Williams said. “I’m just telling you what my observation is. If this had been a black kid who did the same thing, we wouldn’t be talking about three months’ probation.”
Catanzarite explained that he didn’t negotiate the plea deal and that he was standing in for another prosecutor, Courtney Butterfield, who negotiated the case.
“Now that the court has essentially called me a racist, I think that’s unfair. I don’t make offers based on race. I make offers based on facts,” Catanzarite said.
Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said the plea deal was appropriate and agreed to by the officer, who was not injured.
“Negotiated pleas are never based on the race of a particular defendant but rather on the behavior of the defendant and the facts associated with that behavior,” Manko said. “The assistant district attorneys who handled this plea on behalf of the commonwealth have outstanding reputations, and we firmly stand behind their integrity and the integrity of all of our prosecutors.”
Deputy District Attorneys Becky Spangler and Dan Konieczka along with First Assistant District Attorney Chris Connors reviewed the plea deal after Williams complained, and they decided the deal was appropriate, Manko said.
During the hearing, defense attorney Giuseppe Roselli questioned whether Williams was rejecting the plea because McGowan is white.
“Not because he’s 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,” the judge responded.
Williams later recused himself from the case, and a county court administrator reassigned the case to Judge Randal B. Todd. Todd, who is white, approved the plea agreement and sentenced McGowan to three months of probation. Prosecutors said McGowan had not been in trouble before.
“Since it’s your first time in the system, I’ll approve the plea agreement,” Todd said.
The incident stemmed from a Jan. 16 traffic stop in the North Side by Pittsburgh police Officer Paul Abel. After Abel asked McGowan to step out of his car, the officer said he thought McGowan was going to hit him and failed to comply with commands.
He charged McGowan with aggravated assault, terroristic threats, resisting arrest, obstructing the administration of law and improperly turning without a signal. Those charges were withdrawn, and McGowan pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge.
Another race issue arose last week before Williams when Freedom Bey, a black man from Larimer convicted by a jury of first-degree murder, asked for a new trial because the jury was all white.
Williams denied the request, saying that he agreed jurors probably didn’t understand Bey’s rough upbringing, but that some issues transcend cultural differences.
“Things are not perfect, but some of us manage to get through it without killing people, without dealing drugs, without hurting other people,” the judge said last week.