Conflict of interest? Weirich’s election-season interview with ‘shock jock’ raises questions

DA consents to interview with Thaddeus Matthews as her office pursues criminal charges against him

By , Special to the Daily Memphian Updated: August 02, 2022 9:58 AM CT | Published: July 29, 2022 4:00 AM CT
In partnership with

The Institute for Public Service Reporting

The Institute for Public Service Reporting is based at the University of Memphis and supported financially by U of M, private grants and donations made through the University Foundation. Its work is published by The Daily Memphian through a paid-use agreement. 

Amy Weirich spoke with controlled passion as she heralded Tennessee’s new “Truth in Sentencing” law that increases prison time for certain violent offenses.

“It’s something I’ve been fighting for for many, many years,’’ she said.

To a casual listener just tuning in, it might have sounded like just another campaign message from Shelby County’s incumbent Republican District Attorney. After all, she faces a spirited challenge from Democratic opponent Steve Mulroy in what many expect to be a down-to-the-wire finish on Aug. 4.


DA’s office files motion to try second teen as adult in Eason-Williams carjacking, slaying


But it struck some as odd — even perplexing — as they dissected this conversation recorded earlier this month and posted to an obscure YouTube channel: Conducting the interview of Weirich was controversial alternative media talk show host Thaddeus Matthews.

Loved and hated in Memphis for his obscenity-laced diatribes, “shock jock” insults and unfiltered political gossip, Matthews was in top form this night. Though he refrained from any profanity or antics while interviewing Weirich — he later endorsed her — he peppered the remainder of the show with repeated homophobic, racial and gender-oriented slurs.

But to two experts in legal ethics, the real shock involves Weirich and her decision to appear on the show at all.

<strong>Bennett L. Gershman</strong>

Bennett L. Gershman

She did so as her office is prosecuting Matthews for a series of high-level misdemeanor offenses involving the alleged harassment of a Memphis woman. The unresolved charges against Matthews include violating a temporary protective order and “unlawful exposure” — Tennessee’s “revenge porn’’ law prohibiting the distribution of a photographic image that consenting parties understood would remain private.

“At the very least, it’s terrible judgment,’’ Bennett L. Gershman said of Weirich’s decision to appear on Matthews’ show.

A former prosecutor and current law professor at Pace University in New York, Gershman told the Institute for Public Service Reporting that Weirich put herself in a “compromising position’’ that might violate Tennessee’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys.

Bruce Green concurred, saying in an email that Weirich’s appearance on the show in the middle of a heated campaign isn’t a good look.

“Ms. Weirich should not have put herself in a position where it might appear that she has a self-interest in going easy on a criminal defendant in exchange for help with her campaign,’’ said Green, the director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University Law School.

Weirich said in a written statement released through a spokesman that she has no conflict.

“I ran into Mr. Matthews at an event at Walker Homes and he invited me on his online show to discuss “Truth in Sentencing.” My office has been actively working to educate the public on this new law in an effort to deter crime and I have appeared on a number of programs in my official capacity as DA. There is no conflict since I have never paid Mr. Matthews or received a campaign contribution from him,’' she said.


Q&A with DA incumbent Amy Weirich


“... This office takes all accusations seriously and we will continue to investigate and prosecute Mr. Matthews’ current cases as we have cases involving him in the past.”

The development comes as supporters of reformist challenger Mulroy highlight past questions about Weirich’s conduct, including a 2017 private reprimand from the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility for her prosecution of Noura Jackson, whose second-degree murder conviction for the stabbing death of her mother was vacated and reduced to voluntary manslaughter.

Now, the woman at the center of the Matthews allegations says she’s upset, too, with how Weirich’s office has handled her case.

“The system has failed me,’' said Towanna Murphy, a rival talk show host whose allegations led to the current misdemeanor charges against Matthews. “The system has failed us as women.’'

Matthews interviews Weirich

The case against Matthews has many twists and turns.

Murphy alleges that Matthews began harassing her last winter. He then was arrested after she obtained a temporary order of protection.

But when a judge denied Murphy’s request for a permanent order, she was arrested for allegedly physically attacking Matthews — in court.

Both Matthews and Murphy face hearings today in General Sessions Criminal Court. Murphy says she wants the DA’s office to recuse itself from her case because she doesn’t believe she’ll get a fair hearing due to Weirich’s association with Matthews — and Matthews’ celebrity.

“I’m fighting for everybody that he’s done this way,’' said Murphy, 48, who owns a small, Internet-based radio station. In a phone interview, she admitted jumping on Matthews’ back in court but says she did so out of frustration, contending she’s put up with years of abuse and harassment from him.


Q&A with DA candidate Steve Mulroy


“These (public officials) won’t even speak up because they’re afraid of him. I’m not afraid of him any more.’'

Matthews, 65, denies the charges against him. In turn, he says Murphy is jealous and began fabricating stories about him after he filed a defamation suit against her last December.

The current charges against Matthews were winding into their seventh month when he bumped into Weirich at a community event in early July and asked her to come on his show. Matthews said he considered it no big deal. A range of politicians have been on his show over the years. In this election season alone, he said, he’s interviewed Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, County Clerk Wanda Halbert and General Sessions Judge Betty Thomas Moore, among others.

At the event, the two posed for a picture: Weirich in a flowing summer dress and Matthews in a black short-sleeve shirt emblazoned with his “Cussing Pastor’' logo promoting his talk show.

“I didn’t have no problems with it being taken,’' said Matthews, who’s been prosecuted by Weirich’s office before.

With 14 felony and misdemeanor convictions on his record, he was charged in November 2013 with three counts of sexual exploitation of a minor in an indictment personally signed by Weirich. That case involved an image showing an adult engaged in a sex act with a small child that Matthews posted to his Facebook account. Matthews contended he posted the image hoping to locate and aid the child. The sexual exploitation charge was dropped when he pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence in 2015 and received five years probation.

“Now, it surprises me that she took a picture with me,’' Matthews said. “But you know in politics, nothing is surprising anymore.’'

But Matthews made it clear: He asked Weirich onto his show to talk about “Truth in Sentencing” only, not her campaign.

“Who better to explain the ‘Truth in Sentencing’ than the District Attorney General?’' he said.

The YouTube video of the July 5 interview starts as his program often does, with a screenshot displaying the words, “The Cussing Pastor TV Network,’’ and a caricature of Matthews spewing cryptic obscenities.

Matthews soon appears on camera and, early in the broadcast, is talking about “the lying-est mother (obscenity) in the world’’ who is “hoodwinking and bamboozling’’ people in Memphis. It soon becomes clear he’s talking about a political rival and not his guest for the evening, Amy Weirich.

 His tone changes when he calls Weirich from his cellphone.

“First time ever that I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the attorney general of Shelby County,’’ Matthews says as he dials Weirich.

“Hey buddy,’’ she says as she answers.

Matthews explains that the sole topic of their conversation will be Tennessee’s new “Truth in Sentencing” law that took effect July 1. Matthews says he’s “a proponent’’ of the law, which eliminates reduced time for a range of offenses involving murder, kidnapping, carjacking and aggravated assault.

“Thank God it’s the law,’’ Matthews says at one point, referring to Weirich throughout the call as “General,’’ a courtesy title often used by insiders when addressing the Shelby County District Attorney General.

The two talked for nearly 38 minutes. Matthews asked some questions about the charging of juveniles as adults in cases considered especially egregious, a practice that’s come under increasing criticism in recent years. Other questions came across as noncritical, even fawning.


District Attorney candidates debate during Rotary Club lunch


“Am I correct in saying that you can only do what the state legislators allow you under the statutes to do?’’ Matthews asked at one point, deflecting criticism about Weirich’s tough-on-crime reputation.

 “You just can’t make a decision … on what you’re going to do outside of the statutes that the state legislators have put in place?”

“Sure,’’ Weirich answered, saying she’s often “hamstrung’’ by the law.

“I’m supporting the General,’’ Matthews declared after Weirich hung up.

“I don’t care what you have to say,’’ he said moments later as he read live text comments from viewers supporting Mulroy.

“… Give me a reason to support Steve Mulroy. You got a reason? (Obscenity) Steve Mulroy. I called that mother (obscenity) some months ago to talk to him. Mother wouldn’t return my call. Left me a little message on the messenger: ‘I’m not interested.’ So (obscenity) you. I ain’t interested in you either, Steve Mulroy. And I hope that a large percentage of my audience say (obscenity) you too.’’

Law professors see a conflict

That influence worries Gershman and Green.

The law professors say that by appearing on Matthews’s show in the middle of a heated political campaign, Weirich was able to tap into a demographic — an inner-city, largely African American audience — that she otherwise might have difficulty reaching.

And Matthews didn’t disappoint. 

“I’m asking my audience to support Amy Weirich,’’ said Matthews, who boasts 62,000 YouTube subscribers and 70,000 followers on Facebook.

Fordham University professor Green finds this troubling. 

“Ms. Weirich, as the elected chief prosecutor, is ultimately in charge. The buck stops with her. In exercising her authority — in making the ultimate decisions about whether to continue the prosecution, whether to offer a plea deal, what sentence to seek, and the like — she must avoid conflicts of interest,’' Green said. 

 He and Pace University professor Gershman point to a provision of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct that says a lawyer has a conflict of interest when there is a “significant risk’’ that his or her representation of a client is materially limited by a personal interest.

In this case, Weirch’s personal interest involves “getting elected,’’ said Gershman, who teaches prosecutorial ethics.

“Clearly, to me, this would be a conflict of interest,’’ he said.

“She’s got to understand that she’s going on a show of a celebrity guy that she’s prosecuting. And how does that look to the general public when they see that the incumbent D.A. prosecuting this guy for serious misdemeanors on behalf of a victim who’s been allegedly seriously victimized by this guy, and she’s on the show with him?

“How would a reasonable person see this: She’s just being, you know, a disinterested public official who wants to educate the public on important matters of concern to them? Or is she trying to cultivate this guy’s friendship and camaraderie so she can reach out to a constituency during a very, very hotly contested election campaign?’’


Weirich, Mulroy clash on abortion prosecutions and focus of DA’s race


At least one of Matthews’s viewers seemed to grasp this very point.

“She must have dismissed (my) case,’’ Matthews said, reading out loud what a viewer had put in a written comment. Matthews quickly condemned the observation:

“H---, if she had dismissed it — which she can’t; only a judge, dumb mother (obscenity), can dismiss it — would that be reason for me to support her? ... Yeah.”

Criminal case against Matthews

The charges in question involve three separate allegations of harassment based on complaints from rival talk show host Murphy.

One charge alleges a violation of Tennessee’s unlawful exposure law or revenge porn law. An arrest affidavit alleges that on Dec. 30, Matthews “displayed a nude photo’’ of Murphy “that revealed her buttocks’’ on his YouTube channel. The affidavit said Murphy told police “the photo was taken 9 years ago and Matthews did not have her consent to display the photo …

“During the video show, Matthews displayed the photo from his cell phone. Matthews turned the phone so that viewers could see the photo.’’

Matthews denied the allegation in a phone interview.

“It wasn’t even a picture of her,’' he said. “All they got is a blurred image. They didn’t know what it was.’' 


Republican leaders tout ‘Truth in Sentencing’ crime bill


Matthews’s attorney, Michael Working, said the case amounts to over-zealous prosecution.

“It’s a great miscarriage of justice that he’s being prosecuted,’’ said Working, who argues in court papers that criminal charges against Matthews should be tossed out on First Amendment grounds.

In a motion to dismiss, Working says the case rests on statements Matthews made on his show and on social media about Murphy, arguing it involves protected speech — viewpoints made by a public figure engaged in a very public feud with another public figure.

Matthews, in turn, has initiated his own legal actions against Murphy.

He filed a defamation suit against her in Circuit Court on Dec. 17, alleging that their public feud started days earlier when Murphy falsely claimed on the air that Matthews had “committed the act of ‘date rape’ against her.” Murphy said in an interview she only contends that Matthews drugged her.

“I can’t tell you because it just blacked out my memory,’' she said.


Strickland calls ‘BS’ on critics of ‘truth in sentencing’ state law


Matthews obtained a default judgment against Murphy in April when she failed to timely respond to the suit. Murphy said Thursday she now has a lawyer and will try to resurrect the case.

Murphy, too, faces criminal misdemeanor charges for allegedly attacking Matthews after a legal proceeding turned in his favor.

According to records, she had obtained a temporary order of protection against Matthews on Dec. 14. Such orders are issued ex parte — Latin for “from one side only’’ — and are temporary until a full hearing can be held with the defendant present. Three separate charges against Matthews for violating an order of protection involve actions he allegedly took with this temporary order in place.

But when a full hearing finally was held on March 24, a General Sessions judge declined to issue a permanent order.


What it took to make a diversion of children away from Juvenile Court a reality


According to court records, Murphy became enraged.

“When Thaddeus Matthews was walking out of the courtroom, defendant Towanna Murphy ran behind Mr. Matthews, jumped on his back and started hitting him in the back of his head and on his neck while yelling, ‘I’m tired of him,’ and ‘Y’all don’t know what I’ve been through,’ ’’ an arrest affidavit says.

According to the affidavit, Murphy ripped Matthews’ vest and shirt and “busted his upper lip.’’

“It happened. It’s an affidavit,’' Murphy said. “It happened because (the judge) didn’t give me even a chance to speak. Everything was towards him.”

Topics

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich Thaddeus Matthews
In partnership with
The Institute for Public Service Reporting

The Institute for Public Service Reporting is based at the University of Memphis and supported financially by U of M, private grants and donations made through the University Foundation. Its work is published by The Daily Memphian through a paid-use agreement. 

Marc Perrusquia

Marc Perrusquia

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He's won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and  political reporting. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @psr_memphis.


Comments

Reading comments and joining the conversation are some of the many benefits of subscribing. Join the conversation by clicking the View Comments button below. Not a subscriber? Click here. 

Our commenting policy can be viewed here