Last year, Gerald Thomas was sent to the Allegheny County Jail after charges against him were dropped. He died inside 17 days later. The judge who berated him is now facing a federal lawsuit on his probation policies. This is the first of a two-part series that examines the justice system in Allegheny County through Thomas’ death.
Gerald Thomas had just passed through a stop sign when Pittsburgh police officers stopped him in March 2021. Thomas told the officers that he had a gun, which he claimed belonged to his brother, in the glovebox and handed the weapon to them. Because Thomas was on probation for three years and barred from possessing a firearm, he was arrested.
Thomas’s bail was set at $2,000, but Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge Anthony Mariani held him on a probation detainer–a judicial order to hold a person in jail for a probation violation. Thomas remained in jail when, in late January 2022, his attorney convinced the court that the police search of his vehicle was illegal. The charges against Thomas were dropped, but he remained incarcerated after 10 months in jail.
Mariani wasn’t happy. Three weeks later, during a “Gagnon II” hearing — a legal proceeding where it would be determined whether the detainer on Thomas should remain in place — he was combative with Thomas’s attorney, and rocked back and forth in his chair atop the judge’s bench.
“He keeps wanting to be a street guy. I’m surprised he wasn’t driving something with 22s on it,” Mariani said. “I’m tired of making ticky-tacky technical decisions and young men walking out the door and getting shot down in the street two months, three months later because they won’t quit.”
Mariani told Thomas’s attorney that he wanted his client sent to state prison. He also berated Thomas as a habitual lawbreaker who needed to be incarcerated. “I have to put you in the cage, lasso you, corral you, stuff you, because you won’t quit,” he told Thomas. “I hold my breath for you, and your mother holds her breath for you.”
Thomas’s mother Juana Saunders was sitting in the back of the courtroom’s gallery. She was confused by the judge’s comments and upset that Mariani spoke for her and her family.
“I didn’t understand what was going on because to me, on this side, no charges, no case,” she said. “If he wanted to know how I felt as a mother, he could have asked me to come up and speak for myself.”
Mariani said he was going to postpone his decision on the detainer for at least another 30 days. In the meantime, Mariani said he was going to send Thomas back to the Allegheny County Jail. Saunders said her son looked defeated as officers ushered him out of the courtroom.
“It brought me to tears,” she said. “And to see my son put his head down like that for the first time the way he did going back through them doors, that hurt the most.”
She never got the opportunity to see him again.
Seventeen days after the hearing in Mairiani’s courtroom, Thomas collapsed from a pulmonary embolism in the Allegheny County Jail. He had just gotten off a call with the mother of his newborn daughter when he became ill. Saunders heard from people near his cell at the time that guards, who wrongly believed her son was overdosing, slapped him in the face and shot him with Narcan. Eventually, Thomas was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead.
Last summer the Abolitionist Law Center released a report on Thomas’s death and documented 62 misconduct complaints against Mariani. The Pittsburgh-based public interest law firm seeking to end race-based outcomes in the criminal legal system documented 81 incidents where Mariani mocked defendants, issued prejudicial statements, or made inappropriate statements between March 2021 and April 2022. The law firm’s court watchers witnessed Mariani routinely berate defendants and their attorneys. On 15 occasions, according to the law firm, he referred to the physical stature of Black men, compared to only two instances involving white men, and on two occasions talked about locking Black men in cages.
“It cannot help but raise in people’s minds the issues of proper conduct for a judge on the bench, proper ways to talk to people before him, and questions about whether he is showing not just respect for the public, but respect for his own office,” said David Harris, an endowed chair and professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “This is not behind closed doors. If this is something that we think shouldn’t be happening, it is not something we have to guess at. It’s right there.”
According to court watchers with the Abolitionist Law Center, when a Black man’s attorney mentioned his client’s struggles with mental health in May of 2021, Mariani responded, “Isn’t that his issue? Not our issue.” And later threatened to lock him in a cage. During a hearing for another Black man in January of 2022 he yelled, “How many years do I have to put people in cages until they understand?”
During a September 2021 sentencing of a Black man who had spent six and half months in jail, Mariani remarked, “You look pretty meaty. How many pushups can you do without stopping? Big strong guy, you been doing pushups in the jail?” according to court watchers. He later added, “How’s the jail food? What’s the worst meal you’ve had? Heard [the bologna] is green and slimy.”
In May of 2021, the court watchers reported that he mocked a Black man who was caught drinking a Coors Light and faced a jail sentence for violating a strict probation requirement barring him from consuming alcohol. Mariani said the man should be in a beer commercial: “Coors, the beer worth going to jail for.”
There are also other incidents involving Mariani not included in the Abolitionist Law Center report. In 2021, while presiding over a sexual assault case Mariani chastised a woman for allegedly being too drunk when she was assaulted by her Uber driver. “She is completely blasted, drinking all night, street parties, completely blasted,” he said. While sentencing a person with substance use disorder in 2016, Mariani quipped that he should make the man pay for the Narcan that was used to bring him back to life twice.
After the law firm’s 2021 report, multiple Black defense attorneys publicly defended Mariani. “I take issue with the allegation that Judge Mariani exhibits racist behavior,” wrote Kelvin Morris in a Facebook post. “My experience has been that he equally makes inappropriate comments at times against both Black and White defendants.” Morris added that “racism is real and certainly present in the criminal justice system, and throughout my career, I’ve learned to recognize it, in both subtle and blatant forms. If I had reason to believe Judge Mariani were treating Black defendants more harshly than White defendants, I would have spoken out against it.”
But Mariani isn’t the only judge on Allegheny County’s Common Pleas Court accused of making racist comments. In February 2020, Mark Tranquilli was removed from the bench after he berated prosecutors for losing a case by allowing a Black woman on the jury who he repeatedly referred to as “Aunt Jemima,” because she wore a hair scarf in the courtroom.
In October 2022 The Abolitionist Law Center filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of six plaintiffs against Mariani and eight other county officials for their probation detainer policies — the same policies that led to Thomas’ nearly one year of incarceration before he had the opportunity to be released. The lawsuit claims that Mariani and Court of Common Pleas Judge Kelly Bigley have “no lift” orders on potential probation violation cases, leading to automatic jail detention for months, possibly over a year, before their attorneys can argue for release.
According to the lawsuit, “on any given day over the last two years, roughly one third of the people caged at the ACJ (or upwards of 600 people daily) have had a probation detainer lodged against them.” It also included stories of plaintiffs like Dion Horton, who was incarcerated at the Allegheny County jail and lost his job and missed the birth of his child because of a probation detainer.
Discovery is ongoing in the Abolitionist Center federal civil rights case. An attorney for Mariani filed a motion to dismiss the case, disputing the legal claims and arguing the allegations against Mariani were unsubstantiated. Mariani’s office said he was away on vacation and hung up during a follow up call to his office. Bigley declined to comment. In an emailed statement, the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania wrote that because of “confidentiality requirements” they “cannot confirm or deny” any details regarding the complaints against Mariani and declined to answer any questions about him.
Since 2015, Allegheny County has been working to reduce the number of people in its jail. But as the jail’s overall population has declined, the racial disparities of those incarcerated has increased. 66% of people in the jail are Black, while the county’s population is only around 13% Black. According to the jail’s data dashboard, by early March 719 people — 43% of the jail — were on some sort of probation detainer.
Tanisha Long, a community organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center and founder of Black Lives Matter Pittsburgh and Southwest PA, says she’s observed more than four dozen of Mariani’s court proceedings. His rulings can be harsh, but they aren’t the worst she’s seen. She says that what upsets her is the arrogance he displays in doling out punishment and his satisfaction in sending people to jail.
“You’re just delighting in the fact that these people are going into conditions where people aren’t coming out,” she said. “When you spend your time on the bench berating and beating down people in front of their family members, that’s not part of being a judge.”
A family mourns
Saunders, Thomas’s mother, lost faith in justice the day Mariani sent her son back to jail. “Once he sent my son back to jail and he said those things for me, at that point, I just lost all trust and hope in the judicial system,” she said. Now, she looks to the rest of her family for love and support.
Thomas was a middle child born in 1995. He had five brothers and sisters. Saunders thought of him as the glue that held the large family together. When Mariani sent Thomas to jail in 2021, his girlfriend was pregnant with his fourth child.
“He was a good father. He worked, he wasn’t just riding in the streets,” Saunders said. “He had a newborn baby while he was in jail that he never got a chance to hold.”
Sean Campbell is an investigative journalist and contributing reporter with The Garrison Project based out of New York City who is focused on social justice.