Lawyer who has worked for Allegheny County DA and public defender to challenge Zappala
Turahn Jenkins stood at the corner of Grant Street and Forbes Avenue and watched as hundreds protesting the fatal shooting of Antwon Rose II gathered outside the Allegheny County Courthouse, where he has spent most of his 13-year career as an attorney.
That was the moment he knew he was making a good decision, said Mr. Jenkins, who will announce Monday evening that he plans to challenge 20-year Democratic incumbent District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. in 2019.
“People are screaming for help. I saw years of frustration. And disappointment. And anger. And helplessness” at the rally protesting the June 19 shooting of Antwon, an unarmed black teen, by East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld.
“It was confirmation I was stepping up and doing the right thing at the right time.”
Mr. Jenkins, 40, grew up in Monroeville, and graduated from Gateway Senior High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1999. He worked as a social worker in mental health for two years before going to law school at Duquesne University.
During his legal career, he spent time as a law clerk in the Allegheny County Public Defender’s office before becoming an assistant district attorney in January 2006. He spent nearly three years there before entering private practice, focusing mostly on criminal defense.
He returned to the PD’s office in 2013 as a deputy director of Pre-Trial Services and became chief deputy director — the second in command of the office — in 2016.
His resignation from there becomes official Monday.
Mr. Jenkins, a Democrat who lives in Churchill with his wife and two young children, says that he’s not running against any one person. Instead, “I’m running for my vision and the people.”
He recited a litany of problems he sees in Allegheny County’s criminal justice system — from magistrates overusing cash bail, to the over-incarceration of non-violent offenders, to the criminalization of opioid addicts, to prosecutors overcharging defendants (the prosecutorial practice of "tacking on" additional charges that likely can’t be proved that is used to put the prosecutor in a better plea bargaining position).
Mr. Jenkins said he thinks back to the 1980s and ‘90s and the crack cocaine epidemic.
“We, essentially, threw those people away,” he said. “We’re beginning to do the same thing in 2018 with the opioid epidemic. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to be an addict.’”
Mr. Jenkins criticized the overcharging of defendants, which he said can lead to guilty pleas from innocent people who just want to get out of jail and home to their families, and to mass incarceration.
Cash bail, he continued, is a problem because it criminalizes poverty.
“In essence, the rich and guilty go free, and the poor and innocent go to jail,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Our jail is full of people who are poor, mentally ill and drug-addicted.
There must be consequences for crime, he said, but “there should be some room for discretion, and — at times — mercy.”
Mr. Jenkins was approached months ago about the idea of running to be the head law enforcement officer in Allegheny County. He wasn’t sure, knowing that he very much liked his private, quiet family life.
But the idea began to resound with him.
“People are hurting. People want answers.They feel like the system is not addressing the needs of the people.”
And Mr. Jenkins, who has spent the bulk of his career as a defense attorney, believes change can’t come from that side of the aisle.
Mr. Jenkins believes he is qualified for the position — having trial experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, as well as serving as the manager of a law office.
He touted several accomplishments as a deputy in the PD’s office, including making it a requirement that attorneys in his office file a motion for bond for all clients who remain incarcerated following their preliminary hearings.
His office now has an 80 percent success rate in getting those defendants out of jail pending trial. And he now requires that any PD client being arraigned at Pittsburgh Municipal Court be represented at that initial hearing.
“The statistics suggest our presence is having an immediate effect on people being released prior to trial so low-level, non-violent offenders can go back to their jobs and their families and continue to be productive citizens.”
Mr. Jenkins, who is known as a soft-spoken, kind and easy-going man around the courthouse, said he’s not a politician.
“I feel like this is a higher calling,” said Mr. Jenkins, who is active in the Bible Chapel in Wilkinsburg.
When he talked about the shooting death of Antwon Rose II, Mr. Jenkins became somber.
“I am terrified for my son, and he’s only 6 years old. He could be somewhere, the wrong place at the wrong time, encounter the wrong person,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“It’s hard for me to talk about this.” He paused. “Me and my wife talk about this all the time. I don’t want that for him. There comes a point in time when you get tired of hoping and wishing for the right things to happen. And there’s only so much you can control as a defense attorney.
“The system is broken, and anyone who’s ever been involved in the system, knows that.”
G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center or Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said it sounds to him like Mr. Jenkins is running as a "reformer.”
"We are in a period now where district attorneys are under more scrutiny than at any time I remember," Mr. Madonna said. "There's a great deal more interest in law enforcement activity across the board.
Based on Mr. Jenkins complaints about prosecutors overcharging defendants, and how the system is running overall, Mr. Madonna said, "He's running against the establishment."
Mr. Jenkins recognizes that his run to unseat a five-term incumbent will be difficult. He said he doesn’t have any deep pockets behind him, and instead will rely on a grass-roots movement.
“I’m prepared to put in the work and put in my best effort,” he said. “If the people hear my message and believe in my vision, I have a legitimate chance to be the next district attorney of Allegheny County.”