Q&A with DA incumbent Amy Weirich

By , Daily Memphian Published: July 25, 2022 4:00 AM CT

Amy Weirich is the Republican nominee for the Shelby County District Attorney General. She will be challenged by Democratic nominee Steve Mulroy in the Aug. 4 general election. 

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Weirich has served as District Attorney for Shelby County since 2011, when she was appointed by former state Gov. Bill Haslam. She was re-elected in 2012 and again in 2014. She joined the District Attorney’s Office in 1991 as a courtroom prosecutor.


Q&A with DA candidate Steve Mulroy


Abortion

Daily Memphian: When Roe v. Wade was overturned, a 30-day trigger law went into effect in Tennessee that greatly limits the ability to get a legal abortion. And a heartbeat bill has already taken effect, making illegal abortions after six weeks or when a heartbeat is present. How would you handle prosecuting abortion cases if law enforcement brought them to you? What factors would you look at?

Amy Weirich: (The law) says that a district attorney cannot make broad statements about the types of cases or categories of cases that they won’t prosecute unless and until those facts and circumstances are in front of them. And there’s already talk of the legislature asking for a special prosecutor to be appointed in Davidson County, based upon what General (Glenn) Funk has said. And I think my opponent has already said enough — that if he’s elected, that would be the next step here that a prosecutor from outside of this jurisdiction, from some other part of the state, would be called in to examine these cases. 

I think what’s important to remember is actions speak louder than words, and what my focus has been as district attorney has clearly been on violent crime and finding ways and creating ways to get the low-level cases and offenders out of the system and off of our dockets. So, in terms of what we would look at, we look to the same thing for any kind of case that is brought to us, or situation that is presented to us. We look to what the facts are, we look to what the circumstances are. All of that is wrapped in what we know is the community response and what we need to do for this community as prosecutors in Shelby County and what’s best for the citizens of Shelby County.

‘Truth in sentencing’

On July 1, a “truth in sentencing” law kicked in, eliminating the possibility of parole for certain crimes, such as attempted first-degree murder or carjacking. Does this affect how you will prosecute these crimes? What effect do you anticipate this new law will have on our jails? Our city?


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This is something I’ve been pushing for and fighting for a long time. And I think if you’d ask any prosecutor across the state what we needed to address violent crime in the state, this was the answer. Yes, it will impact our office. We’ve already had several meetings about it and had several trainings on the statute. One of the things that it’ll probably do is increase the number of cases that we try because now, all of a sudden, that number means something. If someone is sentenced to 10 years now for one of these violent offenses, they’re going to do 10 years. And so there’s going to be more offenders that want to exercise their right to a trial, and that’s fine. What I’ve told my team is you still have your discretion. Always, always, always, you have your discretion to use. 

This legislation is much needed to shut that very wide prison door at the back. It’s legislation that really kind of came from the communities across the state screaming out about why are we being victimized by people that should be in prison? They were sentenced to X number of years; why are they out in a fraction of that time only to re-victimize citizens? 

And I think it’s important to remember two things: that it passed with bipartisan support and that it is not something that mandates prison time. So we’ll still have the opportunity and the ability as prosecutors, as we do every day, to take someone who under the law is eligible for probation, and still give them that opportunity. 

If there are issues with overcrowding, then that means … there’s an overcrowding of victims in the community, and they don’t get a break on their sentence. 

Priorities 

What is the most important crime issue that needs to be addressed in Shelby County?

Violent crime — and that’s all day, every day. We’ve got two courtrooms that are dedicated to repeat major violent felony offenders. And they work around the clock, handling those cases as they come into the system. Our gang and narcotics unit, we retooled that and reorganized it several years ago. And their focus is now not only … narcotics, but crime strategy. Focusing on those crime drivers in our community. They are the unit that handles our Focused Deterrence program. 


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We’ve expanded the Special Victims Unit, which is our team of prosecutors that handles nothing but rape: child rape, child abuse, adult rape. We’ve given them more prosecutors, more victim witnesses, more investigators. And they work side by side every day with law enforcement. I’m very proud of the work they’ve done on the cold cases on the backlogged sexual assault kits that were found by the police department several years ago. So really working through those.

And then, of course, “truth in sentencing” helps us with the violent crime fight and the issues that we have there to hold those offenders accountable. But that’s really our focus every day.

Juvenile transfers

There’s a high population of African American juveniles who have been affected by the criminal justice system. What would you do to reduce the number of juveniles, particularly African American youth, who are brought into the criminal justice system? What would be your criteria for those who are transferred?

Reducing the number of juveniles brought before the system, we’re already doing much in that arena when I created community prosecution. 

We are working very closely with Youth Villages, and have been for a little over a year or so now and growing that program every day. In fact, there’s a new policy, I guess I can’t speak too much about it right now. But our relationship with Youth Villages is very strong.


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And then the S.H.A.P.E. program, which has been around forever, we’ve expanded over the years the types of offenses that are eligible for the S.H.A.P.E. program. And … it’s basically taking low-level crimes that occur on school properties, and instead of calling the police and sending it down to juvenile court, it’s being handled in different ways. 

Youth Court is another great model that has been around.

And then … if all of that doesn’t work, and if all of that isn’t helping to keep juveniles from getting deeper into the system, the criteria that we look to for making those transfer decisions. First of all, it’s the law. And what the law sets out are the types of offenses that are eligible for transferring. Quite frankly, we could file transfer on a whole list a whole lot longer list of cases than we do.

What we reserve that tool for are the most serious: the murder, the rape, the carjacking, the armed robbery, the criminal attempt murder. And we look to what the juvenile is charged with, what we can prove. … And then what efforts have been made before to try to rehabilitate this person? If they have been in the system before, and we haven’t tried everything at our disposal, let’s look to that. And then last but not least, is certainly our responsibility to public safety.

If we didn’t seek transfer on a 17-year-old for first-degree murder against your family member, when they turn 19, they’re out with no supervision, no requirements, no restrictions, nothing. They’re just out scot-free. And it’ll be hard to sit down with a family member and say, ‘Sorry, I’m not going to follow the law here because we’ve just had too many juveniles committing violent crime.’ I’d love for those numbers to come down. But that’s got to start way upstream from me. That’s got to start long before that very serious, violent crime has been committed.


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Diversity in the District Attorney’s office

There have been questions about diversity in the district attorney’s office. If you are reelected, what steps will you take to address this? 

I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing. I’m very proud of how the number of diverse employees in our office has grown. I’m the first female district attorney. I think it’s ironic that my opponent talks about this so often, and he’s chosen twice now to run against female African American politicians in this community. But we’ve grown the diversity in our office, and we will continue to focus on that as we have.

It’s very difficult to recruit African American attorneys. First of all, there aren’t that many attorneys in town. I think it’s reckless to talk about the population in the community and how many African Americans are in Shelby County. They’re not all licensed attorneys. I think the national percentage of African American attorneys is 5%. And in our office, it is 20% to 21%. Overall, our office staff is 30% African American minorities. I’m very proud of that. 

But yes, we have to do more work in that arena. One of the things that we’ve done in the last two, three years or so, is really hone in on law schools and universities around the country, instead of just focusing on the schools here in our own backyard, to make that outreach to say, ‘Look, this is a great place to work. And we’ve got great opportunities. And we’d love to have your applications.’ But it’s difficult to compete with the pay scale, it’s difficult to compete with the workload and the pressures and stresses of being a prosecutor or working in the DA’s office. But I’m very proud of what we’ve done.

No camping law

The expansion of the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 was recently passed and became effective July 1, making it a felony punishable to six years in prison to camp on any local public property. If someone were arrested for this by law enforcement, how would you deal with this case?


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When those cases are sent to us, we look at the facts. We look at the circumstances, we look at the statute and we look at the big picture. Is this really a crime that is driving the public safety needle? Is this really a crime that we need to use our limited resources to pursue? And then, of course, what the legislature says about it. Where does it rank in terms of, is it a C misdemeanor? Is it an A felony? How serious is it? What can we prove? Is this something we need to pursue?

I think the scenario that’s often asked with that legislation is are we going to be locking up homeless people? No, I don’t think that’s where law enforcement is going to be focusing their energies. You know how understaffed they are, how overworked they are. I don’t think these are the kinds of cases that they’re going to be out looking to make. And they’re certainly not on the top of the list of our focus in the DA’s office.

Criminal justice reform

What are some criminal justice reforms you have put in place while you’ve been in office? What additional reforms or programs do you plan to put in place?

I’ve mentioned community prosecution, and that’s one that we’re really proud of. I would love to have an actual prosecutor assigned physically to all nine precincts. We just don’t have the resources for that. 

Community Justice is our restorative justice program. My opponent loves to complain about the low numbers. But I think what has to be stressed every time we talk about it is an offender has to want their case handled that way. We’re not forcing people to take part in restorative justice; the offender has to want the case to be handled that way. And the victim has to agree to it. Everything we do in our office is victim-centered. And so the victim has to say, ‘Yes, it’s OK for this case to be handled in the restorative justice program.’ And so, if both of those things happen, cases are sent there.


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We’ve talked about Focused Deterrence. I’m very proud of Lives Worth Saving, which is our prostitution diversion program that we started many years ago. Anybody charged with prostitution is given an opportunity to attend a class. And they’re fed a meal, they are introduced to men and women who have been in the human trafficking world, and they are shown how they can get out of it safely and forever if they want to. And they are connected with resources to make that very healthy departure from that dangerous world. And if they complete the class, we dismiss their charges and expunge them from their record. 

Talked about rolling SVU. And that’s something that that team is working very hard every day.

Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigation Team (VAPIT) is the elder abuse prosecution investigative team. So taking a page from what we’ve done for decades in the arena of child abuse, we now apply that model to elder abuse. We started that here in Shelby County. And then the legislature passed a law that says every DA’s office in the state needs to be doing what Shelby County’s doing. So that’s been really exciting to watch, get off the ground and to grow. 

I would love to see a frontward-facing dashboard of what we did in the DA’s office. Keeping in mind the limitations on what we can and can’t share and doing it in a way that at least lets the public see. 

And then I would love to see a system where every juvenile that came into contact with law enforcement is matched with a mentor. ... I think that mentoring piece is important. 


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Bail setting system

What needs to change in the bail-setting system?

What I think needs to happen in the bail setting arena is that an elected judge should be making decisions on every case, that there should be a hearing in which our prosecutors put their proof on. If the victim wants to be there and testify, he or she can. And then the defense has an attorney there, and they put on their proof to determine what an appropriate bail is. And then that elected judge makes that determination after that hearing.

Gun crime

Gun crime is up. For the year of 2021, it increased 40% from 2019. What needs to happen to reduce this in Shelby County? Why has it gotten so bad?

So guns in cars was passed in 2014. Before 2014, you couldn’t ride around with a gun in your car. So now, all of a sudden, all these guns that were in everybody’s homes safe are now driving around town in cars. And so when that legislation passed, we saw the number of car burglaries go up every year, and it continues to go up. ... And then of course, as you know, last year, the legislature passed open carry, permitless carry, so that now not only can you carry it around in your car, you can carry it into Target. And so that also increases the number of deadly weapons that are out in circulation, looking to be stolen by individuals who want to harm people.

We need to get the police department up to full complement. And then I think, hopefully, the impact of “truth in sentencing,” and hopefully, being able to utilize that legislation to put violent offenders in prison for the time that they have earned, based upon their conduct, will at least ensure that they are not quickly back out on the streets. What we also need are resources in terms of preparing offenders for reentry. We work very closely with DeAndre Brown and Shelby County Office of Reentry, with Hope Works. They’re all part of our Focused Deterrence program. And every day, I feel like I’m meeting more and more small organizations that work in that arena of wanting to help offenders get on the right path. And we’re very much about that. 

And I think the other important part of that is the youth assessment center (which is officially titled Shelby County Youth and Family Resource Center). It’s for their families to seek help and to seek intervention. 

Violent crimes

Certain crimes, such as murders and aggravated assaults, have gone up since 2011. What factors would you say have played into that increase? How do you plan on reversing this trend? 


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I think both of those pieces of gun legislation, when you look at the data and overlay the passage of those, contribute to the rise in both murder and aggravated assault crimes. Aggravated assault, of course, is one of those, thankfully, that is on the “truth in sentencing” list. And hopefully, we can help reverse some of those trends by using this legislation in the way that it’s intended. 

I think it’s also important, you’ve got to throw in the pandemic to this conversation. We are not the only city seeing a spike in violent crime; it is literally around the world. But certainly, every major city in this country is seeing it as we are coming out from the pandemic and all that it impacted. 

Low-level crimes

How will you prosecute nonviolent crimes, such as theft or marijuana possession? Should they result in prison time?

There is nobody in prison on simple possession of marijuana. Police, if they arrest somebody for that — which is not very often, if they do — it is typically in connection with some other crime. They catch you in a stolen car. And you also have illegal drugs on you. If somebody spends a night in jail because they were arrested on that, we’re going to nolle prosequi that the next day. If it is somebody who has been before us before for the same offense, we might ask them to pay a fine and some court costs. But low-level marijuana is low on the totem pole of things that we do. 

We stopped prosecuting driving on revoked licenses if the reason for the revocation is strictly monetary, probably in 2016. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be arrested for it. Police are still going to charge you for that, they’re still going to arrest you for it, they’re still going to bring you Downtown. We look at the case the next day. If the reason for the revocation is simply that you owe money — either child support or you owe money from fines and costs from a previous conviction or you owe money to the Tennessee Department of Safety for traffic offenses that you haven’t paid — we are getting rid of those cases. In the first year that we implemented that policy, we eliminated close to 40,000 cases from the General Sessions docket.

Racial disparities in drug law enforcement

Studies show that there are racial disparities in drug law enforcement, despite the fact that white people and people of color use and sell drugs at the same rate. What would you do to minimize these disparities?


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I think a lot of that just comes from training, certainly at the law enforcement level, of what to look for and making sure that implicit bias is addressed and framed. We’ve conducted implicit bias training within the office. Our office has been, since the beginning, a part of the Center for Excellence in Decision-Making. And that is an all-inclusive list of people in the community, from law enforcement, to judges, to private attorneys and private organizations, to make sure that the leaders in all those organizations are doing everything we can to talk about that.

But I think it just gets back to training, training, training and having conversations about it. That’s why, again, our community prosecution model has been so important to me ... Sometimes, there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. But sometimes, there are things that our office can either change, or we can bring people together and have those conversations about what the perceptions are and then what those realities are.

Outside changes

What are some changes, beyond the DA’s role, that you feel need to be instituted to effectively reduce crime in Memphis?

I think timely and appropriate interventions for juveniles or anybody, I think that’s one thing that there certainly needs to be. One of the frustrations we hear a lot is the delay in which a juvenile is brought to justice. They’re often just given a juvenile summons and told to come to court at a later time.

And there’s this long delay before there’s any consequences for their actions, before there’s any conversation or intervention in that young person’s life. And far too often, they continue on that path of criminal activity. So if we had that timely and appropriate intervention in the moment, that might help prevent that further crime down the road.


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I think any and all resources that we can provide both in the jail — and again, in the prison system, if someone is actually incarcerated or waiting in jail for their case to be disposed of — what can the sheriff, what can the prison officials, do to use that time in a way that, again, prepares that individual for being returned to the community? 

Efficiency within the court is something that is very important to me. It was one of the motivating factors behind our total reorganization of the office two years ago. And that was something that was suggested to my predecessor to do to turn the office into a vertical model. He didn’t get it done. I did get it done. It took a lot of work, it took a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And it has already proven to be a more efficient model. We are getting cases through the criminal justice system, from the General Sessions point through disposing and criminal court, at a much faster rate than we ever have before. 

State laws

What state laws do you think should go into effect or what will you push for as far as legislation to help reduce crime in our city?

I’d love to rewind on permitless carry, but I’m not sure that that would ever have any success. Domestic violence, of course, is a huge issue in our community and throughout the state. And I think strengthening some of the domestic violence statutes and making those tougher to hold those offenders accountable would be helpful.


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Again, the “truth in sentencing” is gonna go a long way in helping us, but it doesn’t include every crime. The ideal situation would be that if you are sent to prison for any offense in the state, then you do you do that time that you’re sentenced to. But again, we’re very thankful for what has passed and what the legislature got through this session.

And we’ll get to work implementing that. Resources are always at the top of the list. When we talk about DA’s conference legislation. We don’t have an adequate number of prosecutors to do the work, so we’re constantly pushing for that, both at the state level and here at the local level, to have lawyers and staff that can handle the workload.

Additions

Anything you’d like to add?

I hope that when people evaluate the work that I’ve done, they look at it in terms of the actions, the things that we’ve built, the things that we’ve accomplished. Again, I’m so proud of the team, the DA’s office team and the work that they do every day — not just in the courtrooms, holding offenders accountable, but also doing it tempered with mercy, tempered with what the right thing is for that situation. The work that they do beyond the courtrooms, both in the community and with the community.

Topics

Amy Weirich 2022 district attorney race District Attorney
Julia Baker

Julia Baker

Julia Baker covers criminal justice for The Daily Memphian. A lifelong Memphian, Julia graduated from the University of Memphis in 2021. Other publications and organizations she has written for include Chalkbeat, Memphis Flyer, Memphis Parent magazine and Memphis magazine.


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