Pittsburgh Judge Rejects Plea Agreement As Something That Prosecutor Only Gives “To White Boys”

In Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Judge Joseph Williams has caused a controversy by rejecting a plea bargain on the ground that it is the type of deal that “only goes to white boys.” The plea agreement involved three months probation for a man accused of fighting with police during a traffic stop.

In the hearing, Judge Williams (who is African American) rejected the plea agreement on the grounds that it was “a ridiculous plea that only goes to white boys.” He said that a black defendant would never have been given such a plea agreement. He further accused Assistant District Attorney Brian Catanzarite of racial bias, observing that he “for some reason comes up with I think ridiculous pleas whenever it’s a young white guy.” He continued “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.” The first problem, the prosecutor noted, is that it was not his deal — Catanzarite was standing in for another prosecutor and did not cut the plea deal.

Catanzarite was not backing down from the allegation, however. He stated “[n]ow 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.”

Williams later recused himself and another judge (who was white) accepted the plea agreement.

It is hard to judge the leniency of the plea from the known facts. In favor of the plea, the defendant had no criminal record. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. We have seen that in some cases officers charge assault with even the most limited contact with a defendant. It is not clear if this involved something more serious.

I would be surprised if the police would allow a prosecutor to plead out a serious assault case against an officer — or that the police union would remain silent in such a circumstance. In this case, the officer was not injured and agreed to the plea agreement.

Catanzarite’s legal options are limited. In-court statements are generally privileged and cannot be the basis for defamation actions. If the judge makes such statements outside of the courtroom, he could face such a lawsuit. Catanzarite could also file for judicial discipline in such a circumstances.

The judge, however, is not without supporters in this controversy with some people applauding him for objecting to the disparate treatment given white and black defendants.

Source: MSNBC

24 thoughts on “Pittsburgh Judge Rejects Plea Agreement As Something That Prosecutor Only Gives “To White Boys””

  1. The following is a must read:

    Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice by Alexandra Natapoff

    Criminal informants are being used in rather unimaginable ways to help fight the “war on terror.” Congressional hearings folks. Congreassionaly hearings.

    The FBI and other agencies ran amok during the Nixon years. Does anyone believe for even a millisecond that Bush and Co. didn’t condone an “anything goes” culture after 9/11?

    Something’s gotta give.

  2. richard pryor had a joke about that in one of his skits. “”if you look in jail you see justice, just us.” (tried to find it on you-tube but no luck)

  3. I think we need stats on deals offered to criminal defendants with variables such as race accounted for in the system. (I think ethnicity and gender would also be of interest, too.) Once we have those stats, we can determine if Judge Williams or the prosecutor or neither are making decisions which correlate to the racial profile of the defendant. If so, we have a reason to give this more than passing interest,and can determine if we have any cause and effect.

    Judge Williams may have raised a valid point based on his experience or he may be grandstanding as he obviously knew this would get a rise in a racially polarized environment. We simply don’t know at this point. I know the bromide about statistics, but in the main, they have relatively fewer political aspirations than judges or prosecutors do.

    I also think stats would serve another important function: Simply letting the powers that be know that we are watching and recording may produce a Hawthorne Effect and improve the system by that means alone.

  4. tomdarch,

    It would be interesting to know if the judge had previously tried (pun intended) indirect methods such as you suggest. I would guess that such an effort would not be likely to be effective in any case.

  5. Prof wrote:

    “In favor of the plea, the defendant had no criminal record. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. We have seen that in some cases officers charge assault with even the most limited contact with a defendant. It is not clear if this involved something more serious.”


    At least in my experience, police treat “white” people differently than “black” people. My sense is that the analysis the Prof. offers above doesn’t hold much water.

    So this “white” guy “had no criminal record.” That doesn’t tell you much about his actual conduct – police are more likely to send a “white” kid home with a warning, while arresting and having prosecuted a “black” person for doing the same thing.

    Similarly, the police were seemingly OK with a “disorderly conduct” charge – would the have pressed for more serious charges based on the same actions from a “black” person? In my experience, yes.

    It seems “intemperate” of this judge to have explained his decision in the way he did. While we don’t have enough facts to know absolutely if he was right, my sense is that he’s barking up the correct tree. It seems he might have been better off making his ruling with minimal explanation, then finding other ways to make it known to prosecutors that he expects evidence of more even treatment. There’s basically nothing he can do about the decisions of who gets arrested, and who doesn’t. There’s very little influence he can have on who gets charged and for what. Now that he has brought this problem out in the open in such a direct way, I think it’s going to be tough for him to directly deal with this issue. I only hope that by raising a stink, it has some broader positive effect.

  6. James,

    The judge had to rule on the case in front of him – he did it in such a way as to call attention to what he saw as an injustice and then recused himself to avoid damaging the defendant. He could not ensure that he would hear all future cases involving black defendants with harsher plea deals than white defendants received. What you suggest is both less effective and less principled.

  7. Slartibartfast,

    I don’t have any problem with what the judge ultimately did, but it seems like a better approach would have been to reject a future, harsher plea by saying “You gave that white boy three months probation”, rather than rejecting a good deal because of previous bad deals.

  8. What is the rationale behind disallowing suits against the prosecutors if they have indeed mishandled cases and caused someone harm — is it just lawyers protecting lawyers?

  9. James M,

    That’s a very important distinction to make, but the life of a young white man was not ruined. Due to the actions of Judge Williams (in recusing himself) the issue was decided by another judge. I can’t see his actions as anything but admirable – he called attention to something which may well be a serious problem and that we should keep an eye on in any case since racial bias is known to exist in the legal system – e.g. crack vs. powder cocaine and the death penalty – and then he let the issue at bar be adjudicated by a third party.

  10. It seems like the solution is to demand better deals for young black men, not ruin the life of a young white man too.

  11. lots of strangeness from the bench today…where is the oversight? who is the oversight? do these things ever get addressed in a practical manner?

    the world is off it’s nut…..

  12. I guess no one should hold their breath on this ruling if the past is any indicator:

    “The Supreme Court has said that, instead of being sued, prosecutors who break the rules could be kicked out of the legal profession or even charged with a crime. Those outcomes are rare. Although USA TODAY’s investigation documented misconduct in 201 cases, it did not find a single federal prosecutor who was disbarred. Only one, Richard Convertino, was prosecuted. He was acquitted.”

  13. Since the judge later recused himself, I can’t see how it was a bad thing to raise what is clearly an important issue. Hopefully it will lead to an examination of statistics regarding plea agreements in order to determine if his allegation has merit.

  14. AY,

    Thanks for the link … I’m fascinated by this particular set of circumstances.

    And a good morning to you!

  15. Prosecuting offices’ immunity tested
    Supreme Court set to hear a case that considers whether prosecutors’ employers can be held accountable for not preventing misconduct

    By Brad Heath and Kevin McCoy


    Americans can sue almost anyone for almost anything. But they can’t sue prosecutors.

    Not when prosecutors hide evidence that could prove someone’s innocence. Not when they violate basic rules designed to make sure trials are fair. Not even when those abuses put innocent people in prison.

    Nearly 35 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors cannot face civil lawsuits over how they handle criminal cases in court, no matter how serious or obvious the abuses. Since then, courts have further limited the circumstances under which prosecutors — or their bosses — can be sued for civil rights violations.

    Today, in a case involving a New Orleans man who came within a month of being executed for a murder he didn’t commit, the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider another aspect of prosecutorial immunity: whether people who were wrongly convicted can take local prosecutors’ offices to court. The court’s answer could determine the extent to which prosecutors’ employers are also shielded if they fail to make sure attorneys comply with their constitutional


    This should be interesting…..

  16. If the facts are as presented … officer agreed to plea, it was another prosecutor’s work, this was a first time offender … then the Judge picked the wrong case to make the centerpiece of his concern over disparate treatment of defendants/pleas.

    However, fair warning has now been given to the prosecutor’s office.

  17. Wait, wait ….Stop the press…..It may be customary for this to happen in this Jurisdiction and it may be racially based…However….no priors….touching an officers hand could be an assault…The Judge does have to delineate his reasons for rejection of the Plea on the record…but what the diff….the Prosecutor usually asks the “Complaining Victim” if the offer is acceptable to them…they this instance..the cop…gave his assent….so is the deal unfair…? Orr maybe the cop knew that the proper elements could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt….

  18. Good for the judge. I think it’s completely appropriate for the judge to note what he sees to help keep the prosecutor’s office diligent in the application of their customary fair treatment of all defendants.

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