Shortly after she joined the Mecklenburg County district attorney’s staff, Bev Merritt slipped into her office, closed the door and sobbed.
God, how she loved her new job. Really.
Now, as she leaves it, the 65-year-old shares stories about some of the hundreds of families and people she tried to help.… Funny, she says in retrospect; maybe they helped her more.
Ten years ago, when she took the job, the Florida native already was well-versed in public service. Merritt spent three decades in city government, half working with the Charlotte City Council on appointments to committees and boards.
But when she walked across Fourth Street to become an assistant to prosecutors, working with families wounded by rapes, robberies and killings, Merritt knew immediately that her government service had changed. A few months after joining the staff, she found herself in a courtroom, transfixed as a woman told the judge how she still hoped to hear the voice of her dead son after she grew old.
Merritt found herself overcome by sorrow and awe.
“I thought, ‘How much courage did it take for that mother to stand up in that courtroom and say those words?’ I don’t know if I could have said them,” she says.
“All these families have had such great integrity and great strength. They have faith, and all that has rubbed off on me, particularly the faith part.”
She explains: “They have lost someone who they loved more than anyone else in the world, and they are going through this horrible process of a trial. So when I see a mother or father stand up in court, look over at the defendant and say, ‘I forgive you’… I’m thinking, ‘Could I do that?’ Again, I’m not sure.”
Merritt’s last day was Friday. During her time on the district attorney’s staff, she great-aunted hundreds of crime victims through the rigors of the criminal-justice system with a combination of warmth, honesty, humor and practical advice.
Her goal throughout: Make the legal gantlet a little easier to understand and endure.
In the end, she accomplished far more.
“She became the face of this office,” says her boss, District Attorney Andrew Murray. “We have good prosecutors, but Bev is the one prepping the families for what’s going to happen at trial, and she’s sitting there holding their hands when the verdict comes in.”
Merritt and the dozen or so family advocates in the office often are the first official voices grieving families will hear after unspeakable events. They arrange meetings between families, prosecutors and detectives. They’ll prepare the survivors for trial – making sure that if there’s something in the evidence or testimony that will break a parent’s heart, they’ll hear it from the district attorney’s office before it’s said in open court.
Merritt always packed extra tissues for court. She advised families to bring cushions to trials. She offered advice on how to handle the media. She translated the legalese and kept her families up to date on court schedules. She also told them how to behave.
Most families followed her advice. Some did not.
She’s had fathers charge in open court at defendants on trial in their sons’ killings. She’s seen judges throw family members in jail for profanity or other outbursts.
She’s also been trapped in numbing, post-trial silences, when months of preparation by prosecutors and victims’ loved ones ended in not-guilty verdicts. At times like that, there is little she can do or say.
“There are no words,” she says.
The name on a cellphone
In her homicide cases, Merritt often played the role of watchdog, letting families know when disturbing testimony is about to begin or gruesome photos about to be shown in court. On other occasions, she was the ear on the phone willing to listen day or night.
“She’s the one I had on my cellphone for four years,” says Steve Price, whose wife and infant daughter died south of Charlotte in 2009 after their car was struck by a driver racing with another vehicle down N.C. 49. “She showed me where to go, what time to get there, what I needed to bring. She took the stress away, the anxiety. She showed me what I needed to do, and that somehow gave me strength.”
Merritt also gave advice. Each day of the trial, the typically private Price brought a picture of his wife and daughter to the courtroom. After each day’s adjournment, he refused to talk to reporters.
When the verdict came in and a jury sent both speeding drivers to prison, Merritt pulled Price aside.
“She said, ‘Steve, you need to honor your family. You need to walk out there and hold up that picture and introduce your family to those reporters,’” Price recalls. “That made me realize that I had to face the public a little bit… that reporters and everybody then knew what I was too hurt to talk about.”
Price followed Merritt’s advice. Today, he considers her a “lifelong friend.”
Lisa and Dan Holt lost their son, Hunter, in the same crash.
“You’re dealing with assistant district attorneys. They have feelings, but they just can’t let them show,” Lisa Holt says. “Bev was just the human being that all my family needed. Bev was that human part of the court system that everybody needs whether they know it or not.”
As the trial went on, Holt says, the anger inside her grew. After the verdict, she was given a chance to speak to the judge and confront one of the drivers – a 44-year-old mother who had raced down N.C. 49 at more than 100 mph, then failed to call 911 and left the scene where three people died.
Merritt asked Holt if she wanted her to stand with her before the judge.
“I told her I did, and she stood right there by me while I said what I needed to say. It helped having her there,” Holt says.
Today, Holt still refers to Merritt as “my Bev.”
Monday night, on the first day of her retirement, Merritt and her husband celebrated their 40th anniversary at Dressler’s restaurant. Bev ordered the lamb chops. The couple plan to travel, but Bev already is training to volunteer at a hospital near their Matthews home. Her public service is not yet done.
She says she will miss her families and the courtrooms – and the alchemy that turned violence and loss into so many lasting personal bonds.
“When people asked me what I did, I’d say I worked for the homicide team,” Merritt says. “I’d tell them, ‘I know this sounds bad, but I love my job.’”