When asked about how he will approach the job of being Mecklenburg County’s new district attorney, Spencer Merriweather talks about trust and community building. He ticks off goals that include transparency, fairness and equal access to justice.
And then there was that time he got stomped by a cop.
It was 1994. Merriweather had just finished his sophomore year at a Mobile, Ala., high school and was taking part in a summer program for gifted students at the University of Pennsylvania. He had his head down, running as fast as he could through the Italian market area of downtown Philadelphia to catch up with classmates when he found himself flat on his back.
He looked up to see that he had collided with a white police officer. The next thing he felt was the blow of the officer’s boot sinking into his ribs.
Merriweather, 39, says he wore the physical scars of the encounter for years. What sticks with him today, however, has little to do with police capacity for violence or the racial profiling that he believed had occurred. Instead, Merriweather says he learned something about the application of power.
“I have to be very mindful of how I exercise my authority,” Merriweather says. “If you exercise it wrong, it stays with people forever.”
Monday morning, Merriweather’s power grew exponentially when took the oath to became the top prosecutor in the state’s largest court system, with a constituency of more than 1 million residents. He is charged with directing an office of about 200 while wielding sweeping influence over the lives of tens of thousands of victims of crime and the people accused of committing them.
Merriweather, a Democrat, was nominated by a Democratic governor based on the recommendation of his Republican boss. He will serve out the last year of the term of Andrew Murray, who was sworn in Monday as U.S. Attorney for Western North Carolina. Merriweather says he has “every intention” of running for a full four-year term next year.
He takes the reins after 11 years as an assistant district attorney, trying cases ranging from habitual offenders and sexual assault to murder.
He is also the first African-American to become what one Harvard University advocate calls “the most powerful elected official in Mecklenburg County” – at a time when murders and other violent crimes are on the upswing, the overwhelming number of victims of crime and criminal defendants come from minority communities, and police and prosecutors find themselves subjected to the highest level of public scrutiny and skepticism since the 1960s.
Veteran Charlotte attorney James Ferguson said the appointment of a black man to the countywide office is “welcome and long overdue.”
“It is important to have someone in the position who can relate to the experience of the majority of people who are going through the criminal justice system from both a cultural and experiential perspective,” says Ferguson, one of North Carolina’s most prominent African-American attorneys.
“That perspective will offer not only the prospect of new sensitivity, but the prospect of genuine change. ...With meaningful change, the system has a chance to regain lost credibility.”
Merriweather promises to represent all Mecklenburg citizens. He says that in numerous roles throughout his life – from student body president at Princeton University to his bartending job during law school – he relied on childhood advice from his father that he should interact with different kinds of people and find a way “to get along with everybody.”
But he doesn’t shy away from recognizing the racial and cultural significance of his appointment.
“A person who has grown up in Alabama knows what sacrifices have been made for him to have access to a system that was previously closed,” Merriweather says. “This is a critical moment, a critical opportunity to earn the trust of people so we can raise the level of confidence in the criminal justice system.”
He tells a story from 2003, when Merriweather was a UNC law student interning at the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office, and a career in criminal justice was one of the last things on his mind.
Merriweather says he was paired with Assistant District Attorney Bill Stetzer when the veteran homicide prosecutor had to tell the father of a murder victim why the evidence had persuaded him to offer the defendant a plea deal for a lesser charge. The father was black. Stetzer is white.
“Bill had done everything right, but no father who has lost a child is ever going to be happy with a plea offer,” Merriweather says. “When I saw this guy’s response, I knew he was thinking, ‘This white guy will never understand what I’m feeling.’ ”
At that moment, Merriweather says, his career plans changed.
“I remember thinking that day how important it would be for me to be in that room,” he says, “how important it would be for parents to know that people like me had a role in the decisions made about justice for that kid.”
In Merriweather’s opinion, the timing of his appointment leaves him “in a weird spot.”
He is expected to face Democratic opposition, meaning he could be on a primary ballot in as few as six months. Yet, he acknowledges that county residents “expect me to do this job.”
Merriweather cites the county’s spiraling homicides that have left the office with a backload of cases to prosecute. He says he will begin the process of evaluating the office’s existing policies on everything from alternatives to prosecutions, bond amounts and the handling of juvenile crime. He also hopes to help establish a permanent expungement clinic in the courthouse to help people wanting to cleanse their criminal records.
Jake Sussman, now managing director of Harvard University’s Fair Punishment Project, says Merriweather has more power than anyone to make the needed changes – and not dutifully follow the policies in place.
“The most powerful elected official in Mecklenburg County is the district attorney,” says Sussman, a former longtime Charlotte defense attorney. “They have the most power to decide who goes into the system and who gets a second chance. In 2017, the district attorney of a major city like Charlotte needs to be thinking and acting differently than his predecessor.”
Whether it’s drug laws, sentencing disparities or the treatment of juvenile defendants, no Mecklenburg DA, Sussman says, “can argue the fact that class and race play outsized roles in how the justice system operates. These problems are solvable, and the district attorney is the person who can lead with solutions.”
Ferguson adds: “Our community is becoming increasingly aware that our criminal justice system must do more than lock people up. He has the background and the knowledge and experience to move the DA’s office into the 21st century.”
For his part, Merriweather says of he is only one of many interdependent players responsible from building greater trust in the system. And while he pledges to make needed changes where he can, it cannot come at the expense of the office’s core obligation of serving victims of crime.
Merriweather tears up when he recalls how three years ago, he walked out of a courtroom with an undocumented immigrant who had been sexually assaulted at work by her boss, who was also undocumented. The case had ended in a mistrial.
When the victim and her husband thanked Merriweather and told him they considered him a friend, Merriweather says he broke down in the middle of the courthouse. “You realize in that instance what we’re supposed to be doing, fighting for people who are not in the position to fight the battle for themselves,” he says.
In the coming weeks, Merriweather says he and his assistants will be venturing out from the courthouse to do a great deal of listening.
“Our community does not have the room for us to disregard people’s complaints about the criminal justice system,” he says. “When people have complaints, we all suffer.”
In that regard, Merriweather hopes to build on Murray’s policy of “responsible transparency” in the handling of police shootings, which Merriweather describes as “public integrity cases” for the criminal justice system.
He also hopes to expand his office’s lists of diversion programs to keep more nonviolent and first-time offenders out of the system. On bonds, which critics say overwhelmingly impact poorer defendants, Merriweather pledges to seek a balance between keeping dangerous defendants off the street while making sure “we’re not locking someone up for stealing a soda.”
A key part of his job in whatever time he has in office, he says, is venturing out into the community in an extension from his father’s advice – convincing churches, schools, neighborhoods and other groups that they have a role in reforming criminal justice.
He says he hears the critics, but he says he rarely sees family or neighborhood members in court promising a judge that they will do whatever it takes to keep a young defendant from returning.
“The Big Ask” for prosecutors is that the community trusts what they are doing, Merriweather says.
“No, we have to earn it. That’s no small thing.”