Updated: 9:10 p.m.
Turahn Jenkins, former chief deputy public defender for Allegheny County, announced today that he’s running for District Attorney in 2019.
He launched his campaign before a crowd that overflowed from Freedom Corner in the Hill District this evening. Leading up to Jenkins, speakers talked about the need for change and of the qualities that would make Jenkins a fair and just DA. For nearly an hour, supporters stood and listened, staying as a heavy rain fell.
Jenkins’ candidacy follows multiple protests where attendees and speakers called for ousting current District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., saying they don’t trust him to bring justice for 17-year-old Antwon Rose II.
Rose was shot three times and killed June 19 by East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld, who was charged with criminal homicide on June 27 and released on bond. His bond conditions were later modified to include electronic home monitoring, per TribLive. A preliminary hearing originally scheduled for Friday has been rescheduled for July 27, WTAE reported.
Jenkins, a native of Monroeville, earned his law degree from Duquesne University School of Law. He’s been the chief deputy public defender for Allegheny County since January 2016, per the office’s website. He’s also an adjunct professor at Duquesne University School of Law and teaches a public defender clinic.
Jenkins resigned from the public defender’s office effective the end of business today, TribLive reported, not long before officially launching his bid at the Freedom Corner event.
If elected, Jenkins would be the first African American District Attorney in Allegheny County history — at a pivotal moment in the community’s relationship with local law enforcement.
At his launch event this evening, Jenkins made no direct mention of Rose in addressing the crowd. Instead, he spoke more broadly about issues of mass incarceration, the opioid epidemic and wanting to bring a new vision to the DA’s office and of his plan to use a grassroots campaign to get himself there.
The system is broken and it’s time for a new direction, he said.
Jenkins’ varied experience
His decision to run was reinforced by the frustration and disappointment he saw from protesters following Rose’s death, the Post-Gazette reported. He also told the PG he’s concerned about multiple issues in the court system, including magistrates overusing cash bail, over-incarceration of non-violent offenders, criminalization of opioid addicts, and prosecutors overcharging defendants.
Jenkins said he decided to run for DA in May and told The Incline that his resignation letter had been drafted a day before Rose was killed.
After today’s campaign event, Jenkins said he agreed with the decision to charge Officer Rosfeld but felt the criminal case against him should have been brought sooner. (The case was filed one week after Rose’s death.)
Jenkins started his law career as a part-time law clerk in the Allegheny County Office of the Public Defender and then became an assistant district attorney in Zappala’s office in January 2006, a position he held for nearly three years.
He then went into private practice for four years, focusing on criminal defense. In 2013, Jenkins joined the Public Defender’s Office as the deputy of pre-trial division and became chief deputy public defender in January 2016.
Jenkins told the PG he knows it will be difficult to unseat Zappala, who has held the position since 1998, but that he plans to rely on a grassroots movement for support. (Allegheny County has had just three different district attorneys in the past four decades.)
Zappala’s long tenure
Zappala comes from a well-known political family. He was first appointed to the position of DA in 1998, and is currently serving his fifth elected term. Jenkins would be his first opponent for DA since the 1999 election, per PoliticsPA. Zappala ran for Pa. Attorney General in 2016, but lost in the Democratic primary to current AG Josh Shapiro.
Asked if Zappala plans to run for re-election, DA spokesman Mike Manko gave The Incline this statement: “District Attorney Zappala is focused on the operation of this office and believes it’s premature to talk politics at this time.”
The 2019 primary is set for May 21, and per election rules, candidates must circulate and file nomination petitions between Feb. 19 and March 12 of that year.
Zappala has faced increased scrutiny following the fatal police shooting of Rose, which occurred as the teen fled on foot from a traffic stop.
In a press conference last week, Zappala said he believed that Rosfeld’s shooting of Rose was unjustified, and that the unarmed teen presented no imminent danger to the officer or public at large. Zappala added that he also prosecuted officers in the two other cases with similar circumstances seen during his tenure.
Track record so far
His office confirmed Jeffrey Cooperstein as the first of those officers. Cooperstein was charged with criminal homicide in the 1998 killing of Deron S. Grimmitt Sr., who was shot and killed during a chase Downtown.
The second was Officer John Charmo. Charmo was charged in 1999, four years after fatally shooting Jerry Jackson, a black Hazelwood man, in the Armstrong Tunnels. The shooting occurred before Zappala’s tenure began, but Zappala re-opened the case shortly after taking office. This was after Jackson’s family discovered video evidence of the shooting via a civil case, the PG reported at the time. Charmo was also charged with homicide.
But only one of those cases ended with the officer being sentenced to any jail time.
Cooperstein was acquitted in 2000. Charmo pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter before being sentenced to 11½ to 23 months in jail with two years’ probation and credit for nine months already served.
Still, Zappala has long fashioned himself as a prosecutor who’s tough on cops when necessary, though his critics argue he’s not always been tough enough.
In an article published Friday, the PG said a search of its archives revealed that of the 22 police homicide cases reported during Zappala’s tenure, including Rosfeld’s, “one is in the court system, one remains under review, one resulted in a conviction and one in an acquittal,” and that “Zappala did not bring charges in the other 18.”
In response, Manko told the paper that all of the cases were given “thoughtful and thorough reviews to determine whether there was justification” and that the DA’s decision making was and is guided by the evidence.
Charges in officer-involved shootings are rare, not just here in Allegheny County, but across the country. Convictions are even rarer.
According to Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, between 2005 and April 2017, 80 officers were arrested on murder or manslaughter charges for on-duty shootings. Of them, only 35 percent were convicted, while the rest were still pending or not convicted.
A larger movement
Jenkins stressed that his campaign is looking for a fresh start for the DA’s office, as are many if not all of his supporters. Throughout the campaign event, speakers urged attendees to vote, to volunteer and to donate.
In a written campaign announcement sent to media today, Jenkins said, “I’m running for District Attorney because I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines and watching as our criminal justice system destroys people’s lives, then doesn’t give them the tools or support they need to put them back together. […] I try to teach my children to stand up and speak out when they see something wrong, and now I have to put my money where my mouth is.”
Many of the same community leaders calling for a candidate to challenge Zappala, and what they see as a lack of police accountability in general, were at Jenkins’ announcement at Freedom Corner tonight. This includes Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability; Summer Lee, Democratic candidate for Pa. House District 34; and Jasiri X, CEO of 1 Hood Media.
Also attending was Leon Ford, who in 2012 was shot and paralyzed by police during a traffic stop. In January, he received a $5.5 million settlement from the City of Pittsburgh.
Last week, Ford wrote an opinion article for Philly.com, and said he would “devote my energy to building a political action committee that can help fund a candidate to run against Zappala and to encourage African Americans to vote.”
At this evening’s event for Jenkins, Ford said, “For a long time we’ve been meeting and having strategic conversations and discussing things, but that season in Pittsburgh is over. This is a season for action.”
Summer Lee also pointed to Jenkins for those questioning whether Pittsburgh’s nascent protest movement would yield any political solutions. “The whole country is watching Pittsburgh right now,” Lee said. “I’m here to tell you that we got a plan, we got a champion.”