Destabilizing speculation

Group files over 60 conduct complaints against Allegheny County Judge Mariani

An advocacy group that has spent the past two years observing criminal proceedings in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas and has strongly criticized the overuse of probation in the county, filed more than five dozens of conduct complaints against Judge Anthony M. Mariani to the state Judicial Ethics Board.

The list of complaints was attached to a 48-page report released Tuesday by the Center for Abolitionist Law that dealt with the case of Gerald Thomas, who was being held in the Allegheny County Jail for a probation violation when he died. from natural causes in March.

“The tragic death of Gerald Thomas at the Allegheny County jail was not random – it was the predictable result of systematic and overlapping patterns of state violence that have become commonplace in this county,” said writes attorney Dolly Prabhu. “City Police, County Probation, County Courts and the County Jail all contributed to Mr. Thomas’ death.

“At each phase, racism likely played a role in Mr. Thomas’ arrest and continued detention. And, at each phase, common-sense reforms could have avoided his needless incarceration and possibly even his death.

The report focuses heavily on Mariani, who was the judge presiding over Thomas’ case.

Mariani did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

Among the allegations against him: that he uses racist language with the defendants before him – commenting on the defendants’ physical size and strength and talking about the need to “lasso” them; that it deprives defendants of due process in their probation violation hearings; and that he insults the defendants who try to defend themselves.

“While Judge Mariani is not the only judge on the Court of Common Pleas to engage in prejudicial practices, he stands out as a judge whose regular bashing and bashing of defendants, witnesses and attorneys has regularly appalled the observers in his courtroom,” the report said. “Judge Mariani’s behavior demands a rigorous investigation into his fitness to serve as a judge. He is regularly rude, discourteous and unprofessional.

The complaint process with the Judicial Conduct Board remains confidential until it decides to file formal charges with the state Supreme Court of Judicial Discipline.

David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said filing complaints with the Judicial Conduct Board appears to be appropriate, based on observations made in the Abolitionist Law Center report.

Being a judge is “a position of great privilege and responsibility”, he said. “You don’t always deal with easy people and easy circumstances.”

Harris said judges must be able to maintain the type of demeanor and temperament that reflects the position.

“If he can’t control his temper or constantly makes personal observations about people who have nothing to do with the case,” Harris said, maybe Mariani should quit.

“My speculation is that (the Judicial Conduct Board) would see him as a role model and take him seriously,” he said. “I think the pattern is highlighted by what I saw in the report.”

The report sheds light on what happened to Thomas, 26, who died in the Allegheny County Jail of natural causes on March 6.

Thomas was on probation for a case in Mariani’s courtroom when he was arrested by Pittsburgh police for running through a stop sign. The arresting officer searched the car and found a handgun in the glove compartment, and Thomas was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm. Even though a magistrate judge set bail at $2,000, Thomas was held for violating probation.

Thomas’ defense attorney, Ken Haber, filed a motion to suppress the evidence because the search was unlawful, and Mariani agreed.

He dismissed the evidence, and the district attorney’s office dropped the charges on January 27.

However, Mariani would not lift Thomas’ inmate. Thomas was on probation for drug-related convictions, according to court records.

During a probation violation hearing on February 17, the judge said Thomas was driving without a license and arresting officers said they saw him put the gun in the glove compartment before searching the car. car.

Mariani gave the prosecution and defense time to brief on the matter, but Thomas died of a pulmonary embolism before that happened.

The report also highlights dozens of other observations made by the Abolitionist Law Center’s Court Watch program since 2020.

Fifteen times, according to the report, Mariani “made inappropriate comments about a black man’s physical appearance.”

In one instance, he continued, Mariani told a defendant, “‘You look pretty plump, how many push-ups can you do without stopping?'”

In another, he said: “’When I look at you I see a well-built guy. No one will touch you if you don’t want to… I wouldn’t fight you if I had a club in my hand. You are built strong, stocky.

This only happened twice with white defendants, according to the report.

“Based on my personal observations, the black defendants, Judge Mariani, direct these inappropriate comments at an average-looking physique,” Prabhu said. “Judge Mariani indulges in racist stereotyping with a shameful pedigree stretching back centuries in this country every time he describes what he sees when he looks at a black man: a big, strong and violent danger to society. »

The report also addresses the overuse of probation and what the Abolitionist Law Center considers the failure to incarcerate people for technical violations.

“Probation has never been the rehabilitation program it claims to be. Probation sets people up for failure and locks them into a harmful and destabilizing cycle of re-incarceration and surveillance,” the report states. “Today, community supervision is the primary driver of mass incarceration, both in jails and jails.”

The report argues that inmates on probation are redundant, since new criminal charges trigger the probation revocation process anyway.

“Technical offences, which by definition are not criminal, rarely warrant prolonged pre-trial detention. Thus, inmates on probation serve virtually no justifiable public safety purpose. Instead, the courts’ overuse of this tool keeps the Allegheny County Jail full and ensures that a large portion of those on probation will be trapped in destabilizing and traumatic cycles of incarceration and supervision.

As of Tuesday, 1,663 people were incarcerated at the Allegheny County jail, according to the county jail’s dashboard.

Of these, 522 were being held in some form of county, state or external parole. 413 were awaiting trial and 68 were serving their sentences.

Harris said it’s clear that probation — and especially long probationary terms — are overused.

“To me, that’s one of the real problems for our county and for Pennsylvania in general,” Harris said. “It will force our prison system to resist further efforts to reduce its size and have fewer people under state control.”

The stringent conditions attached to probation, such as zero tolerance for alcohol or drug use or the requirement to have a job, are particularly difficult, Harris and the report note, which can lead to a person’s failure.

“Some people are successful, but that makes it very difficult,” Harris said.

Harris acknowledged that, as in the case of Thomas, a person on probation who illegally possesses a firearm would be of concern to any judge.

“If you use probation, you have to follow its rules,” he said. “If probation is part of the sentencing court system and one of the conditions is no firearms, you certainly have to take that into account as a judge.”

The report suggests a number of potential reforms – outlawing split sentences that include incarceration and long probation; removing police from traffic control and instead using technology to issue warnings and fines for speeding or other offences; and prohibit the use of inmates on probation for technical offenses such as unpaid fines and fees.

Paula Reed Ward is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Paula by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .