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Lehigh Valley Election News

Northampton County D.A.'s race intensifies as Houck, Baratta trade jabs

stephen baratta terry houck side by side.png
Stephen Baratta / Houck for DA
Northampton County District Attorney Terry Houck (right) and challenger Stephen Baratta (left) traded barbs over allegations of misconduct Thursday in what was already a heated primary battle.

EASTON, Pa. - Northampton County District Attorney Terry Houck and challenger Stephen Baratta traded barbs over allegations of misconduct Thursday in what was already a heated primary battle.

Baratta, a former Northampton County judge, laid into Houck in a news release, accusing him of using the death penalty "as a political stunt."

  • Stephen Baratta accused incumbent Terry Houck of using the death penalty as a political stunt in a local case
  • Houck said he is considering an ethics complaint against Baratta
  • Both are former first assistant district attorneys

But Houck said it's Baratta who's playing games, saying he violated rules of conduct by commenting on an ongoing homicide case over which Baratta presided.
"This thing is so outrageous, it's going to defy belief," Houck said.

The exchange started when Baratta issued a news release Thursday morning announcing his support for Gov. Josh Shapiro's decision to continue Pennsylvania's moratorium on the death penalty.

He echoed Shapiro's call to ban the death penalty, saying human rights organizations have called the punishment inhumane and inequitable. In a follow-up interview, he called the system broken, saying the state has only executed three people in nearly 50 years.

Baratta went on to criticize Houck for his handling of a Wilson Borough murder. Houck's office arrested three men for the killing of Nikal Jones in 2020. After the three were in Northampton County Prison for over a year, Houck announced in a news release he would pursue the death penalty against the defendants. But within a week, his office withdrew plans to pursue the death penalty against two of them; the death penalty against the third was withdrawn months later.

Baratta accused Houck of sending out a celebratory release announcing he was seeking the death penalty against three Black men to look tough on crime. He doubted investigators found new evidence 15 months after making the initial arrests that would warrant dropping the death penalty. As part of a plea deal, one of the men, Aquassay Harris, had his murder charges dropped entirely.

"It is abhorrent to use the death penalty as a political stunt,” Baratta said.

But Houck countered that if there was anything amiss with the case, it was Baratta. He presided over the three cases, and he accepted Harris's plea to aggravated assault and recklessly endangering another person. If there was anything wrong with the deal, Baratta could have rejected it, Houck said.

He said if Baratta held moral issues with the death penalty, he could have recused himself from the case. It's only now — a week after Shapiro announced he's continuing the moratorium — that Baratta is speaking out against it, Houck said.

"This is beyond political grandstanding," Houck said.

Houck declined to discuss the exact reasons why his office dropped pursuit of the death penalty, saying he could not comment because the charges against the other two defendants haven't been resolved. However, he noted the decision to file paperwork is dictated by legal deadlines and evidence as it becomes available.

"I don't do this to threaten defendants. I do this because it's part of the law," Houck said.

After a LehighValleyNews.com reporter showed Houck the Baratta news release, he said he is strongly considering filing an ethics complaint against Baratta. He said it is inappropriate for Baratta to publicly discuss the Nikal Jones homicide case because charges against the other defendants haven't been resolved.

"Frankly, I find this legally and morally unethical. He is discussing a case that hasn't been completed," Houck said.

Baratta didn't back down. In a follow-up interview, he dared Houck to file a complaint, saying he had done nothing wrong. Baratta said he did not comment on the facts of the homicide case or comment on the guilt or innocence of the defendants.

Houck's decisions to pursue and then drop the death penalty was already public knowledge, he added.

"He can file an ethics case against me. I think what he did is unethical," Baratta said.

Baratta has already brought a complaint to Northampton County Council against Houck and his first assistant district attorney, Richard Pepper. Although Pepper is a full-time employee, he has been allowed to maintain a separate law office during regular business hours, a privilege not extended to other assistant district attorneys. Baratta also claimed it's a conflict of interest because Pepper rents office space from a prominent defense attorney.

Baratta and Houck are competing for the Democratic nomination for district attorney. No Republicans have publicly entered the race. Both men previously served as first assistant district attorney under longtime district attorney John Morganelli.