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A Top Tennessee Prosecutor Prides Herself On Being Tough On Crime. It’s Soaring Anyway.

When Shelby County’s top prosecutor, Amy Weirich, was running for reelection in 2014, she declared, “I don’t apologize for being tough on crime.” In the years that followed, she lived up to that pledge. Over a long tenure as the top law enforcement official in a large Tennessee county that includes Memphis, Weirich has aggressively pursued violent and petty crime cases and cast herself as an unabashedly pro-police district attorney.

Her office declined to bring charges against police officers who shot or killed people in Shelby County. It disproportionately locked up Black people, who make up 54% of Shelby County’s population and 85% of the people in the county’s jails. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed multiple convictions secured by her office, and Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project found she engaged in more prosecutorial misconduct than any other district attorney in Tennessee.

This fall, Weirich, a Republican, will face voters in this Democratic-leaning county for the first time in eight years. The election will be a referendum on her tough-on-crime agenda: Her Democratic opponent, Steven Mulroy, has advocated for a shift in Memphis’ criminal justice system and supports reform efforts such as establishing units to review prison sentences.

It’s not just a question of philosophies. In 2020, Memphis reached its highest homicide total on record. The city broke that record again last year. Spikes in violent crime have vastly complicated the politics around criminal justice, and often the crime rate has been used as a cudgel against progressive, reform-minded prosecutors. This was shown true after San Francisco voters elected to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin, one of the country’s most progressive top prosecutors. Boudin’s effort was centered around reforming the city’s criminal justice system, including actions such as ending cash bail and stopping the prosecution of minors as adults ― along with being the first DA in the city’s history to file homicide charges against police officers. Weirich sells herself as being tough on crime, but how will voters react when the crime rate has gone up anyway?

Weirich discusses the dismissal of disciplinary charges against her during a news conference on Monday, March 20, 2017 in Memphis, Tenn.
Weirich discusses the dismissal of disciplinary charges against her during a news conference on Monday, March 20, 2017 in Memphis, Tenn.

Adrian Sainz via Associated Press

HuffPost talked with former prosecutors who worked under Weirich, as well as attorneys for people shot by police. They described a prosecutor who was relentless in her efforts to crack down on crime but absolved the police of accountability: A leader whose approach drove down office morale. And they described how Shelby County and Memphis ― a majority-Black city that’s long suffered from poverty, sparse funding for education and a lack of economic opportunity for its Black residents ― have been hurt by her ruthless approach.

Police violence goes unchecked

Police in Shelby County have shot and killed 20 people during Weirich’s 11-year run as the county’s top prosecutor, but her office has not prosecuted a single one. A former prosecutor who worked in the Shelby County DA’s office and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of professional consequences said an officer in the county who shot a person would not be “charged unless there are 100 witnesses and someone on video.”

Pamela Fleming, who also worked under Weirich, said protecting police was part of the culture. “If you believe the police can be corrupt, we don’t know how you can be a prosecutor,” Fleming recalled higher-ups telling her during the decade she spent as a district attorney in the office.

Weirich denied Fleming’s account in an interview with HuffPost, and pointed out that her office has prosecuted police for cases such as driving while under the influence, kidnapping and rape.

But the office’s record on police shootings is clear: Officers have never been indicted ― let alone convicted ― in Memphis for fatally or non-fatally shooting civilians. Weirich’s office recommended charges against an officer in only one case, but the officer was never criminally charged. In the other cases, officers who violated department policy were not criminally held accountable.

This is what happened in the case of Martavious Banks.

A police officer critically injured Banks, who is Black, during a traffic stop in 2018. After police pulled Banks over, he told them he had no license or insurance and was driving his mother’s car. Banks drove away, but struck a curb within half a mile and got out of the car. Police said they saw a gun in the vehicle and that Banks reached down. Although a gun was found with Banks’ blood on it after the shooting, there was no indication Banks had threatened officers during the encounter.

Banks attempted to flee into his house, according to police, and made it to the front porch when then-Memphis cop Jemarcus Jeames shot him five times. There’s no footage of the shooting. Only moments before it happened, the three officers on the scene turned off their body cameras, which was a violation of department policy.

A Memphis police car parked on Beale Street.
A Memphis police car parked on Beale Street.

via Getty Images

None of the officers were charged with a crime, although activists called for charges of attempted murder or assault with intent to commit a murder. Jeames resigned from the department, and the two other officers were disciplined with unpaid leave. Memphis lawmakers proposed that intentionally turning off a body camera and obstructing justice should be a felony violation, but the law never passed.

Banks survived the shooting but wound up in jail. Weirich’s office charged him with evading arrest, reckless driving, having a revoked license and unlawful possession of a weapon due to a gun recovered inside his home. He was jailed for 11 months. After a plea agreement, Banks was released from jail on two years and 10 months probation.

Banks sued the police department over the shooting, seeking $10 million for damages. He received a total of $200,000 in a settlement.

Banks’ lawyer, Arthur Horne, said Jeames should have faced criminal prosecution.

“Nationally, we have started to see more and more cases where cops are being prosecuted for being rogue officers,” Horne said. “Unfortunately, we have never had that here in Shelby County and can’t under Weirich’s administration. Her mantra is being tough on crime. It applies to people in this community, but it doesn’t apply to law enforcement.”

Weirich said that Jeames acted “within the law” of the state of Tennessee even though he violated police department policy by turning off his camera.

“If cops are killing people in self-defense or in defense of others, they have the legal right to do that. And I am not going to prosecute people who have not broke(n) the law.”

When Weirich’s office attempted to bring charges against one police officer who fatally shot a civilian, a grand jury opted not to indict the officer. In 2015, Memphis police officer Connor Schilling shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old named Darrius Stewart.

Schilling stopped a car over a broken headlight. He said he saw that Stewart, who was a passenger in the vehicle, had multiple warrants for his arrest so he put him in the back of the police car.

Schilling claimed that Stewart attacked him while sitting in the squad car and struck him with his handcuffs. A cellphone video from a witness showed the two struggling from the back of the patrol car to the ground.

Schilling claimed he shot Stewart in self-defense, but an investigation conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations concluded Stewart was running away when Schilling shot him.

Weirich’s office recommended involuntary manslaughter charges, but a grand jury decided not to indict Schilling. Federal authorities determined a year after the shooting that there was not enough evidence to conclude that Schilling had used unnecessary lethal force.

Weirich has not looked to reopen the case.

“The Darrius Stewart case was presented to the grand jury, I prepared an indictment, asked the case officer as I do in tens and thousands of cases, and the grand jury said no,” she said.

Henessia Stewart, "sister of Darrius Stewart," attends the Million Man March on October 10, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Henessia Stewart, “sister of Darrius Stewart,” attends the Million Man March on October 10, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Monica Morgan via Getty Images

Stewart’s family believes Weirich could have done more. The family filed a $17 million lawsuit against Schilling in 2020 and called for the case to be reopened. The lawsuit is still ongoing.

“The general consensus is that you can indict a ham sandwich. When it comes to indicting officers, Amy [Weirich] can never seem to get it right,” Carlos Moore, an attorney for Stewart’s family, told HuffPost. “Compare her other indictments to what she does with cops who harm Black men, you would see a drastic difference.”

A ‘soft approach’ to cops

Weirich defended her record in police violence cases and suggested her state’s laws made it difficult to obtain convictions or even indictments. Tennessee laws allow officers to use deadly force against someone who is fleeing or an “immediately dangerous felon.”

Another former prosecutor who worked under Weirich and who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said the office appeared to take a soft approach to police because they often had to work closely together.

“[I] still don’t think that prevents you from being critical about police work and certain officers who have a record of not being credible or having certain behavior,” the former prosecutor said.

Weirich has a far tougher approach when dealing with everyone else. She supports “truth in sentencing” laws, which require people convicted of a number of felonies to serve their full sentence without the possibility of receiving parole due to good behavior.

In recent weeks, she doubled down on her support for “truth in sentencing” laws and has gone after Mulroy for not supporting them.

“Make no mistake, this election is a clear choice between a DA who will fight for victims or a radical activist who sued our Sheriff to release prisoners from jail,” Weirich stated. “In many times, the system is not tough enough on violent offenders. They are sentenced to x amount of years and they are back on the streets.”

Weirich’s rigid approach to crime was always a part of the office culture ― which at times has roiled her staff, according to conversations with four former employees. More than one of the interviewed prosecutors described her mentality as “dated,” and others said her approach to the city’s criminal justice system has been more or less a failure.

Her office does not have an in-house unit to review its convictions and investigate claims of wrongful convictions. Such units have been established in more progressive district attorney offices throughout the country and have typically caused more good than harm in reviewing sentences.

Officers form a line in front of a police precinct Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn., during a protest over the death of George Floyd in police custody earlier in the week in Minneapolis.
Officers form a line in front of a police precinct Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn., during a protest over the death of George Floyd in police custody earlier in the week in Minneapolis.

Adrian Sainz via Associated Press

One of the former prosecutors said that Weirich told them “our entire office is” a conviction review unit. She has also spoken publicly against establishing such a unit in her office.

But a prosecutor’s mentality is often different from one a review unit could provide, one prosecutor told HuffPost.

“That mentality of ‘I’m not a social worker and I’m just here to prosecute this case,’ that mentality is not productive if you expect to change a culture of crime that we have here in Memphis,” the prosecutor said. “It is just not.”

Prosecutors are also overworked. In 2018, the Prosecutor’s Center for Excellence, a policy group tasked with advising prosecutor offices in the country, found that many of the prosecutors in Weirich’s office were taking on too many cases to be able to do their jobs successfully.

Weirich acknowledged the high caseload puts a strain on staff.

“When you look at workload and caseload, we don’t have the amount of people that we need and we have no control of what comes through the door,” she said. “But, the DA office can’t say that. If a crime is committed and someone is arrested, we have to act.”

Fleming said morale in the office has hit an “all-time low” during Weirich’s tenure.

“The way she runs her office, it is about whatever is best for her image and making sure things do not cause discomfort for her,” Fleming said. “She talks, and gets photos-ops, but makes sure no one is making a stink. She does not care about what she does to her prosecutors on staff, it’s all about what will be in the paper.”

Tough on crime fails

Shelby County residents, particularly Black ones, are suffering most.

The Justice Department investigated Shelby County’s juvenile court in 2018 and found that a majority of kids transferred to adult facilities were Black. The department’s report described Weirich tactics ― such as pushing for stiff sentencing on youth, aggressively prosecuting low-level crimes and not acknowledging youth mental illness ― as a “toxic combination for African-American youth.”

“In Shelby County, this is only the most recent and high profile examples of how Weirich inflicts devastating harm among Black Memphians and their communities,” the letter reads.

Local criminal justice advocates say Weirich’s office discriminates against Black people, citing poor diversity in the office and the high numbers of Black people in local prisons and jails. They have called for a racial equity audit of Weirich’s office, something at least two Shelby County Commissioners support.

Mulroy, who is running against Weirich, called out the diversity in her office, claiming he had reviewed data and interviewed former employees to determine that only 30% of staff and 10% of attorneys in the office were Black.

Mulroy said he obtained the data from the county and from interviews with former employees of the DA’s office.

Weirich pushed back, calling Mulroy’s data “false” and “hypocritical.” In an interview with local Memphis television station Action News 5, Weirich said there are “more minorities” in supervisory positions in “our office right now than ever before.”

Josh Spickler, a criminal justice advocate in Memphis who helped write the letter demanding an audit, was outspoken against Weirich’s handling of the case of Pamela Moses, a Black woman who was prosecuted for illegal voting when she attempted to register to vote despite being unaware that she was ineligible due to a prior felony conviction. She was initially sentenced to six years in prison until Weirich dropped the charges.

Spickler told HuffPost that Moses never should have been charged and that Weirich’s actions were evidence of her overzealous pursuit to send people to jail.

“Where in our society does this make any type of sense?” he said. “This was a Republican white DA prosecuting, in an election year, a Black woman who attempted to vote. It reeked of systemic and institutional racism and voter suppression and racism.”

Weirich’s harsh approach never slowed down homicides in Memphis. In 2019, the city had the ninth highest murder rate in the nation. In 2020, Memphis set a grim record for homicides with 332 murders. The city’s totals increased again to 346 homicides last year, setting a new record in the city.

But one of the former prosecutors said Weirich’s tough-on-crime model has ultimately been at the city’s expense.

“The hard on crime mentality that you hear her say that people just want to be ‘soft on crime,’ the mentality she has mentioned since she has been in office, what has improved in our city crime wise?” the former prosecutor said. “Not a whole lot. None, nothing at all.”

a top tennessee prosecutor prides herself on being tough on crime its soaring anyway

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