Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
Kevin Lockett said he suffered serious head injuries after receiving a beating at a Downtown T station in May.
David Depretis, the son of Baldwin Borough mayor David Depretis, front, and Matthew Laplace.
Attorney Robert Del Greco exits the courtroom with his client Kenneth Gault.
By Paula Reed Ward and Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The last of five men charged in a brutal assault last year of a man at the Wood Street T station was ordered to serve six months’ probation after pleading no contest Thursday to conspiracy.
Christopher Laplace, 24, who prosecutors said never touched Kevin Lockett and instead sat drunk on a bench at the plaza while the attack took place, also must complete 100 hours of community service either in, or to benefit, a minority community.
Mr. Lockett did not attend Thursday’s hearing but told reporters after the pleas of the four other defendants earlier in the week that he was dissatisfied. He is black. The five defendants are white.
Five men ordered to stand trial for assault at T station
Five men were ordered to stand trial for the assault of a black man at a Downtown T station in May. (Video by Nate Guidry; 7/28/2015)
“If five black guys jumped one white guy, nobody would be going home,” Mr. Lockett said. “Nobody would get 100 hours of community service.”
But the prosecution argues that the man culpable for the actual assault — and the only person who touched Mr. Lockett at the T station that night — will go to prison.
“We’ve been fighting a long time to use the most objective evidence. We have video evidence. Only one person touches this gentleman,” said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. “There’s no evidence that implicates the other four. The evidence against them is conspiracy to commit theft.”
Thursday’s proceedings, and Mr. Lockett’s complaints about the sentences, are playing out against the backdrop of Mr. Zappala’s run for state attorney general. (Two other Democrats, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, are competing with him in the April primary.)
And running for the state’s top law-enforcement job can pose special challenges for Democratic prosecutors especially, as the Black Lives Matter movement has raised questions about the racial fairness of the justice system itself.
“You can be tough on crime, but Democrats in particular have to be careful that they use the word justice,” said Terry Madonna, a veteran pollster and political observer at Franklin & Marshall College. “I think no fair-minded person would deny that the criminal justice system needs some reform because of the racial disparities. But running as both a reformer and a prosecutor, when you’ve been part of the system for years, can be tricky.”
According to assistant district attorney Julie Capone, Ryan Kyle, Kenneth Gault, David Depretis, the son of Baldwin Borough mayor David Depretis, and brothers Christopher and Matthew Laplace were riding on the T after a Kenny Chesney concert at Heinz Field. Mr. Lockett, who had a cooler with him, was also a passenger. The defendants, Ms. Capone said, began harassing Mr. Lockett, asking him for beer.
Because they were playing with Mr. Lockett’s cooler, he missed his stop at the Gateway station and exited the T at Wood Street.
It was then that a witness on the train heard one of the men in the group say he was going to “kick the victim’s ass,” Ms. Capone said. “All of the defendants and victim were very intoxicated.”
As they exited, Mr. Kyle grabbed Mr. Lockett in a bearhug and threw him off the platform onto the tracks. After Mr. Lockett made his way back up, Ms. Capone said, Mr. Kyle punched him eight or nine times, and Matthew Laplace stole his cooler. Mr. Lockett said he also was called racial epithets.
Mr. Kyle pleaded guilty Tuesday to aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation, reckless endangerment and conspiracy. He will be sentenced on May 16, and Mr. Zappala said he expects him to be ordered to prison. As far as Christopher Laplace’s involvement, Ms. Capone said, “He gets off the T, stumbles and sits on a bench the entire time. It looks like he’s going to pass out.
“He never touched the victim, and the only time he touched the cooler, it looked like he was using it for balance.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said the DA’s office had to know that there would be negative public reaction to the plea deal.
“Certainly on the face of it, it was upsetting for me and other people that there wasn’t even a day of jail time for three of these defendants. Your natural reaction is to want vengeance,” he said. But, he continued, “None of us really know all the facts that are there.”
The public is not made aware of what the circumstances of the case are that could lead to an unsuccessful prosecution — such as the backgrounds of witnesses.
“The politic thing to do would have been to not do the deal: Go to trial and take the risk of acquittal on at least some of the charges. You could blame the judge or jury [for that outcome],” Mr. Burkoff said. “The fact that he authorized this plea agreement anyway demonstrates that he felt it was the right thing to do. … He knew it would be unpopular, but he went ahead and did it anyway. That seems to be an act of courage, and doing what’s right.”
But Julia Johnson, a local black activist and community organizer at New Voices Pittsburgh, said there was no justice for Mr. Lockett.
“It’s really important that a district attorney fights for justice for all of us, not just those who are wealthy or white,” Ms. Johnson said. “The man at the T station — he’s not getting justice now.”
New Voices is not a partisan group and doesn’t specifically advocate on behalf of (or against) political candidates, Ms. Johnson said, but it does voter registration and other efforts.
“We’re making sure people are holding accountable our elected officials.”
On Thursday, Mr. Zappala stood by the plea, calling it consistent with what could be proved by the videotaped evidence.
“I’ve never made a decision on a political basis,” Mr. Zappala said. “We don’t plead cases unless the victim is on board. This issue was discussed at length.”
Mr. Madonna said attorney general races are typically decided on larger issues, such as prosecutorial experience and temperament, not specific cases. But the Black Lives Matter campaign may change the dynamic, especially for Democrats.
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620; Chris Potter: email@example.com.
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