With the primary election over, the race for the job of Shelby County District Attorney General is down to two candidates: Steve Mulroy, a law professor representing the Democrats, and Amy Weirich, a Republican and the current district attorney.
Voters will choose a district attorney in the Aug. 4 general election. And because the DA serves an eight-year term, the stakes of the race are arguably higher than many others on the ballot.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism sent questions to both candidates, some based on concerns we heard from Memphians who’ve had direct contact with the criminal justice system. Mulroy emailed his answers to key subjects, including gun violence, marijuana possession and abortion. Weirich did not respond to requests sent to her office and campaign, so we used her public statements where we could as a guide to her thinking.
What is a district attorney’s job?
Weirich: “I’ve got a job to do for the victims of the crime in front of me and I’ve got a job to do to try to prevent tomorrow’s victims, next week’s victims,” she told the Commercial Appeal in January.
Mulroy: “The DA is the chief state court prosecutor for the county. The DA makes all decisions about charging crimes, accepting plea deals, and making recommendations [on] bail and sentencing, among other things.”
What is the most important crime issue in Shelby County?
Weirich: Weirich’s public statements didn’t make clear how she would answer this question. However, she has often spoken about the need to drive down violent crime in Shelby County.
Mulroy: “Violent crime, which has been rising steadily over the last decade to the point where we’re now number one in the country per capita.”
What is your approach to addressing gun violence? What are some examples of steps you would take?
Weirich: Weirich lobbied against the Tennessee legislature’s 2021 decision to allow most state residents to carry handguns without permits. She has also sponsored numerous “walk(s) against gun violence,” in which people march through some neighborhoods, calling on residents to work against gun violence, Weirich and other participants have said.
Mulroy: “We need sensible gun regulation. There are too many guns lying around in Memphis. People shouldn’t have unlimited ability to get guns without any safety regulations, background checks, and manufacturer trigger lock requirements, among other things.
“We need to stop petty prosecutions for nonviolent offenses, like giving Pam Moses six years for trying to register to vote and refocus on violent crime. I’d pursue programs like Youth Villages’ Memphis Allies to give released (and potential repeat) offenders the counseling, training and support they need to have an alternative to returning to their life of crime.
“Finally, I’d restore public confidence in the fairness of our system through ending prosecutorial misconduct and racially discriminatory outcomes so that the community will start cooperating with law enforcement in a way they haven’t in a while. That’s really the only way to bend the curve on violent crime.”
What state law changes would you push for as DA? And why?
Weirich: Along with lobbying against the permitless carry of handguns, Weirich is helping campaign for a new Tennessee law that would limit parole eligibility, extending the prison sentences people will serve for felony crimes. The law’s proponents call it “truth in sentencing.”
“In a case of attempted first-degree murder, the current law says offenders should serve 15-25 years. The reality is that they serve, on average, 5.72 years. The victims of crime deserve better than that,” she said on her Facebook page in April.
Mulroy: “Sensible gun regulation. Increasing the jurisdiction of Juvenile Court past age 18 to allow more time to rehabilitate youth offenders. Improving bail hearing procedures. Medical marijuana. I would not support ‘Truth In Sentencing.’”
What is your position on prosecuting marijuana-related charges?
Weirich: When the Memphis City Council softened city policy against marijuana in 2016, Weirch argued that prosecuting marijuana users is not a big deal in Shelby County because marijuana charges are usually accompanied by other charges.
Mulroy: “Marijuana possession charges should be a very low priority.”
Are there any crimes you will commit to not prosecuting? If so, which ones and why? If not, why not?
Weirich: Weirich told the Commercial Appeal in January that she wouldn’t commit to not prosecuting any crimes. “It is my belief that if you commit a crime in Shelby County, you should be held accountable. That doesn’t mean you should go to prison, but you should be held accountable,” she said.
Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill allowing the state attorney general to temporarily replace a DA who “peremptorily and categorically” refuses to prosecute certain cases. The Republicans behind the law said they’re targeting “rogue” prosecutors. Mulroy said he is hesitant to declare what he won’t prosecute given the new law.
Mulroy: “A DA should not make blanket statements like ‘I will never prosecute X,’ both because decisions must be made case-by-case, based on circumstances, and because a recently passed state law would allow the state to take jurisdiction.”
Recent news reports have suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade. Should abortion become illegal in Tennessee, what would your response be as DA?
Weirich: In 2020, 68 prosecutors from across the country signed a statement explaining that “it is imperative that we use our discretion to decline to prosecute personal healthcare choices criminalized” under laws the statement described as imposing “untenable choices on victims and healthcare providers.” Weirich did not sign that letter.
In a statement, she told Memphis Watch, a criminal justice advocacy group that wants to unseat Weirich, “The Shelby County District Attorney’s office does not deal in hypothetical situations. We deal in facts and truths. Any statement on unknown variables is irresponsible and political grandstanding.”
Because of the state law that could override district attorneys that counter state law, Mulroy would not commit to never prosecuting women or doctors, he said. However, he believes DAs should not prioritize abortion if it becomes illegal, he said. Tennessee is one of several states that has a trigger law that would allow for abortion providers to be criminally charged.
Mulroy: “I’d follow the law, whatever it is. But criminal prosecution of women exercising reproductive decision-making seems like a bad use of resources. Though the issue is highly emotional, we cannot tolerate violence or disruption by protesters from either side. … We need to spend our resources on the rapists who get a woman pregnant, not the woman who’s trying to deal with the consequences. If the law changes, I’m going to have to evaluate what the law is and evaluate cases as they come to me.”
On Tuesday, Mulroy tweeted: “A District Attorney should not be prosecuting women for their reproductive choices.”
How do you think about trying children as adults?
Weirich: Weirich defended the practice in an interview with the Commercial Appeal in February, saying it is reserved for the worst offenders and necessary in seeking justice for the families of victims. “The ones that are being transferred are the juveniles who are killing, raping, robbing and who have been in and out of the system before,” she said.
Mulroy: “There should be a strong presumption against it absent extreme circumstances. Currently, Shelby transfers more juvenile defendants to adult court than all other Tennessee counties combined, with 95% of them being Black. This is unacceptable.
“The data shows that youth offenders sent to adult prison are at high risk for sexual assault and suicide and become more likely to reoffend once released. So our current practice is both deeply inhumane and counterproductive from the standpoint of crime reduction.”
Is there racial inequity in Shelby County’s criminal justice system? What are some steps you would take to ensure racial equity?
Weirich: Weirich’s public record did not make clear how she would answer this question. However, she has said that she believes her office has been just and fair.
Mulroy: “There is huge racial inequity. It is well documented, most notably by the federal court-appointed monitors over Juvenile Court. I’d increase the diversity among attorneys in the office, who are currently 90% white in a county that is 55% Black with 85% of criminal defendants [being] Black. I’d do implicit bias training. I’d reform the bail system, which is a huge source of the inequity — the more months and years you are languishing at 201 Poplar awaiting trial without having been convicted of anything, the more likely you are to be Black. I’d end the adult transfer practices noted above. Finally, I would drastically improve the way we keep track of stats [for things like] racial outcomes and make that transparent to the public. As a mentor in my old shop, the U.S. Dept of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, once told me, ‘If you want to improve something, measure it.'”
Is there income-based inequity in Shelby County’s criminal justice system? How would you make sure income doesn’t play a role in how someone is treated in the local criminal justice system?
Weirich: In 2018, Weirich stopped prosecuting people for driving on revoked licenses if they were revoked for financial reasons.
Mulroy: “There is income-based inequity indeed. People with resources for a private attorney get much better outcomes. I’d ally with the public defender to get better budgetary outlays for the PD office. I’d also pursue fixes to the bail system. Currently, poor people stay in jail pending trial for no other reason than they can’t afford cash bail. Many plead guilty just to get out of 201 Poplar. We could address this problem by presuming pretrial release, absent specific and credible evidence that a particular defendant was either a flight risk or a danger to the community.”
What is something you think people don’t understand about the role of a DA?
Weirich: We could not find a relevant statement for this question.
Mulroy: “People underappreciate how powerful the position is. The DA has virtually unrestricted discretion over every aspect of the criminal system, from what crimes to prioritize, how serious to charge a defendant, whether to seek pretrial detention, whether to accept a plea deal, to sentencing recommendations. It’s the single most powerful position in all of Shelby County, including all mayors.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to delete a reference that suggested the sentencing bill could not pass without Gov. Bill Lee’s signature.
Carrington J. Tatum and Jacob Steimer are corps members with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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