Mecklenburg County Districting District Attorney Spencer Merriweather has been on the job for two months now after taking over for Andrew Murray, who left the office to become U.S. attorney for North Carolina’s Western district.
One of Merriweather's first acts was a reorganization of prosecution teams. Sexual assault, for example, will now be prosecuted by the same group that prosecutes domestic violence and child abuses cases under a new Special Victims Team. Before, sexual assault cases were prosecuted by the team that takes care of robberies and other types of assault.
In making the announcement, Merriweather said the Special Victims Team "will bring together a strong team of prosecutors and legal assistants who are trained to address the needs of victims who have suffered the trauma of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.”
Merriweather is Mecklenburg County’s first African-American district attorney. He’s a Democrat who was recommended for the job by Murray, a Republican, after serving 11 years as an assistant district attorney. Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Merriweather to finish Murray’s term, which runs through 2018. He intends to seek a full four-year term in November.
In the meantime, Merriweather says he wants his office to improve how it deals with victims of domestic violence by creating a family justice center in coordination with CMPD and the SAFE Alliance, a victims’ services group. The three agencies called for such a center last month.
“A center serves the purpose of putting law enforcement, service providers, prosecutors and other agencies under one roof so a survivor of domestic violence can be welcome in a nurturing environment and meets all of their needs at one time,” Merriweather says. “They can remain engaged with all of the different people who can help and those who can hold the assailant accountable.”
CMPD says 27 percent of Charlotte’s 86 homicides last year were domestic violence-related – as were the first four homicides of 2018. In a partnerhip with QCitymetro.com, Merriweather spoke to WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn about the justice center, race relations, and what he calls “responsible transparency.”
Gwendolyn Glenn: Do you have a timetable for when you’d like to see this justice center operational?
Spencer Merriweather: We're in the planning stage now. There's great momentum for this family justice center, so I believe it will happen. We have a steering committee and a team of people working on it but others need to be involved, including the faith community, health officials, government and non-profit partners. It could take 18 to 24 months to get going because when you do it, you want to do it right.
GG: Let's switch gears to the tension between the police and many people of color around the city. Some think there is some hesitancy by this office to prosecute police officers when they've been involved in fatal shootings.
SM: One of the things my predecessor committed our office to do and I will continue is the idea of responsible transparency. We need to make sure that when decisions are made based on the law and facts, we need to make sure the community understands exactly why we make the decisions that we do. But transparency shouldn't start after we have a police shooting...but before it happens, people need to know how the DA's office works. It's critically important for me to go out and engage with community organizations and not wait on some sort of traumatic experience to talk about what your DA does on your behalf. That is something we have to get better at.
GG: How do you plan to do that?
SM: I have to go out and meet them where they are, see their organizations and the work that they do and ask people to come to my office. I want to be as visible and accessible as possible.
GG: Would you think a different approach should have been taken in cases where police officers involved in shootings have not been prosecuted, for example the Keith Scott fatal shooting that resulted in days of protests? The state tried CMPD officer Randall Kerrick for fatally shooting Jonathan Ferrell but it ended with a hung jury. Should that case have been retried?
SM: I won't review and assess past cases but I do have confidence that those cases were assessed based on the law and facts and I'll continue to provide the same assessment. It's important that the community know what sort of things I'm looking at when I'm making determinations and I think the previous administration of which I was a part of did a lot of that already, but I think it's important that we tell people what the law is and how it is being applied.
GG: How do you weigh in on race and justice when it comes to the court system? Sentencing is not always meted out equally when it comes to people of color and others.
SM: The first thing I can do is make sure I'm applying the law right and that people are getting a fair shake. I can promise consistency in applying the law equitably and make it so people understand that the law works for everyone no matter what you look like. It's taken many generations to build a system that's gotten to the point where we have a trust deficit now, and it won't be erased overnight. One thing we can do is take hard looks at what we're doing internally because if you call it out, you have a better chance of eradicating it, so you look to identify where those disparities exist and do they exist in sentencing. African- Americans and people of color are well overrepresented in our courts and...the larger question is how they ended up in the court in the first place. That's where you wonder what's going on and need to take a harder look at.
GG: What do you tell those who might say, 'I've heard this before and nothing's changed over the years'?
SM: I'm not sure they have heard what I'm saying before. I'm not sure we have opened up and described in detail what it is we want to accomplish and what we do, how many steps there are in the process before a case gets to trial, how many things we think about when we consider punishment, when we decide if we have enough evidence to proceed with a case. To the extent that I can open some of that up and be transparent, I will have done a lot of good.