Two attorneys who are used to being on different sides of the courtroom shard a stage Monday night: Mecklenburg County’s first black District Attorney Spencer Merriweather and Benjamin Crump, a lawyer who has represented families of victims in a number of highly-publicized killings of African Americans. The forum was hosted by the Mecklenburg County chapter of the NAACP. There was some disagreement, but the two had several areas of common ground.
RUMSEY: So was this a debate?
WORF: No, it wasn’t. It was billed as a forum on knowing your rights. But the questions from the moderators were more about policy and approach – things like transparency, diversion programs, and setting bail amounts. And sure, there was disagreement, but it was pretty cordial between the two lawyers. Among his clients, Crump has represented families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. And he said many of the DA’s he’s known are anything but fair, but he seemed impressed by Merriweather.
CRUMP: Normally, the DA isn’t out front like this. So you all should give him a big round of applause for coming out here, trying to be very transparent.
WORF: And Merriweather basically said this is the time he can talk - when a big case isn’t pending. Otherwise, his duty is to making the strongest possible court case. And, he said, that includes arguing against releasing police video before a decision to charge or before trial.
RUMSEY: What made this discussion so intriguing?
WORF: Some of the things the two agreed on and how that’s impacted their view of the criminal justice system. For example, both had concerns about how the court system treats poor people of color.
CRUMP: This whole thing about marijuana, even the crack epidemic, that they criminalize all these black and brown people. And now we have these opioids and they have made it a medical issue. They continue to get the benefit of considerational doubt over and over again. I think we’ve got to push back on that.
WORF: To which Merriweather replied...
MERRIWEATHER: I think that’s entirely right that prosecutors across the country and yours in Mecklenburg County, also, recognizes the way we approach drug prosecution in our jurisdiction needs some rebooting.
WORF: He went on to say that drug cases in general need to be addressed for the health problem they are and people shouldn’t be prosecuted merely for being sick.
RUMSEY: What other concerns do they share?
WORF: Concerns about the bail system. Merriweather says that cash bails increase the likelihood of inequities in the court system. He spoke about getting rid of them, which is something New Jersey just started doing recently. That’s also spurred a bunch of lawsuits. Crump said bails serve a purpose, but too often courts set bails that are unreasonably high for non-violent offenders.
RUMSEY: What comments of these two seemed to resonate with the audience?
WORF: Certainly, when the topic of accountability came up. Crump called on people to do their part in the criminal justice system.
CRUMP: The DA has to do their job and prove guilt beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt and then we have to do our job when they keep sentencing our children to jail versus other people. We have to get out and vote?
WORF: And, he added, African Americans need to show up to jury duty. Merriweather said the rules of professional conduct hold prosecutors accountable, so if he found himself in the situation…
MERRIWEATHER: ...where I’m doing anything less than pursuing justice and I’m presented with exculpatory and don’t turn that over, I’ve done something unethical and I’m going to be stripped of my license. I could also go to prison.
RUMSEY: What did the audience make of the forum?
WORF: The idea of trust and accountability stuck with a few people. Afterward, Ben Robinson said training certainly plays a role, but ultimately it comes down to holding officers and the system accountable.
ROBINSON: That’s the only way to get rid of police brutality and all this unnecessary killing by law enforcement, you got to throw them in jail.
WORF: I also spoke to a UNC Charlotte student and she said Merriweather made her want to join a DA's office and change the system that way.