In the Mecklenburg DA's race, will it be an insider or outsider job?

In the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's race Toussaint Romain, left, until recently a member of Mecklenburg's public defender's office, is competing with Spencer Merriweather, who was appointed in November to fill out the unfinished term of Republican incumbent Andrew Murray.
In the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's race Toussaint Romain, left, until recently a member of Mecklenburg's public defender's office, is competing with Spencer Merriweather, who was appointed in November to fill out the unfinished term of Republican incumbent Andrew Murray. File photos

What may be Mecklenburg County's most competitive race ever for district attorney pits two Democrats from opposing sides of the criminal justice system.

But in many ways, it's the system itself that's on trial.

Every day in the state's largest local court district, a disproportionate number of those arrested, convicted and jailed come from Mecklenburg's minority communities. In the wake of police shootings and Charlotte's 2016 protests and riots, cops, prosecutors and judges all find themselves subjected to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny, much of it critical.

Spencer B. Merriweather, standing with his wife Lila, became Mecklenburg district attorney in November. Now he's trying to convince voters that he's the right candidate to lead the prosecutor's office into an era of change.

Former assistant public defender Toussaint Romain was a prominent figure during the demonstrations that followed the 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. He promises to turn a more critical eye to police use of deadly force, among other reforms. Observer file

Meanwhile, an increasing number of criminal justice officials openly acknowledge their system's failings. They say they are trying to eliminate vestiges of racial and economic bias, which they admit can warp their decisions.

Amidst this backdrop, two African-Americans are vying to usher perhaps the most powerful elected office in Mecklenburg County into an era of profound change.

Spencer Merriweather says he will work from the inside out. A 10-year prosecutor, Merriweather was appointed in November to fill out the unfinished term of Republican incumbent Andrew Murray, who recommended Merriweather, a lifelong Democrat, to replace him.

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Merriweather says he needs a full four-year term to continue making the needed changes, a process he says he began shortly after being sworn in.

Five months into his job as the first African-American ever to lead the district attorney's office, Merriweather already has drawn opposition.

Toussaint Romain, until recently a member of Mecklenburg's public defender's office, says Merriweather can't be trusted to lead the overdue reform of the courthouse because he's too much a product of the legal status quo.

Romain, who gained prominence during the violent demonstrations that followed the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, has positioned himself as an outsider, less beholden to what he describes as a deeply flawed courthouse and more emboldened, he says, to undertake broader reforms.

The tone of the campaign has become quite personal. In one exchange during a recent joint interview on WFAE public radio, Merriweather said his opponent "has the breadth, not the depth" of experience to take over the job.

Romain's response: "Mr. Merriweather doesn't have the breadth or the depth."

In another joint appearance during the Black Political Caucus, Merriweather questioned why Romain had waited until 2017 to change his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, despite Republican efforts to challenge Barack Obama's citizenship and otherwise delegitimize his presidency.

"Just be who you are," Merriweather told his opponent.

In attempting to turn the table, Romain reminded the audience that Merriweather had been "hand-picked" by his former Republican boss to fill out the current term.

"He's not telling you the truth about being selected by Andrew Murray," Romain said.

"It was on the front page of the paper!" Merriweather replied.

Economic fairness

Merriweather, the son of Mobile, Ala., public educators who went on to become student body president at Princeton, interned at the Mecklenburg DA's office during law school, and took a full-time position there after he graduated.

In drawing contrast to his opponent, Merriweather describes himself as a lifelong Democrat and progressive with a far deeper grasp of the office he needs to both lead and reform.

Since being sworn in just after Thanksgiving, Merriweather has addressed the issue of economic fairness in the courts by dropping the financial requirements of the deferred-prosecution program. The initiative allows helps first-time offenders to avoid trials and criminal convictions but had required them to pay down court-assigned restitution first.

"The amount of money in your pocket should not determine if you get a second chance," he says.

He says he's also created a new team of veteran prosecutors to handle cases of domestic abuse, sexual assault and child abuse. As part of that effort, Merriweather said he is among "a team of people" organizing a "family justice system" for Mecklenburg County to act as a one-stop service center for victims of those crimes.

He also wants to help establish an expungement office in the courthouse to help eligible residents remove criminal charges from their records. Now, the effort is handled by volunteer attorneys and nonprofit groups.

Merriweather also says he and his staff have branched out beyond "the four corners of the courtroom" to attend more neighborhood meetings and to seek out more opinions — all aimed, he says, at rebuilding trust and making his office responsive to a broader list of community needs.

During the campaign, Merriweather has had to defend himself and his office for deciding not to bring criminal charges against police officers after fatal shootings. The police killing of Keith Lamont Scott set off protests and violence throughout the city in September 2016. At least a small group of activist still believe that police shot and killed Justin Carr during one of the resulting demonstrations. Rayquan Borum has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with Carr's death.

Activist Gloria "Glo" Merriweather, no relation to the district attorney, said she witnessed Carr's death and blames police. She also faces charges in connection with the disturbances.

"By staying silent on our cases, DA Merriweather is making it clear that he doesn't stand against police murder or political repression of activists, specifically black activists," Gloria Merriweather said in an email circulated last month.

Spencer Merriweather, who has ruled on one fatal police shooting since taking office, said he cannot comment on any pending cases. Yet he rejects the notion that his office is a "rubber stamp" for police actions.

"I've never been a rubber stamp and I never will be be," he says. "There's never anything cavalier about cases involving violence and death. What people can expect of me in this role is the belief that every life has value and every voice has value.

"That's not a promise to make everybody happy. But it is a promise of fairness and accountability."

'Smart on crime'

Romain, however, says Merriweather is too steeped in a tough-on-crime mentality to make difficult changes.

In a recent column for the Observer, he said police officers are citing fear for their own safety to justify the use of deadly force.

"Just like no executioner fears the pitied soul that lays prostrate before him, the actions of these officers show that they don't fear black men either," he wrote. "This is murder."

Romain made his name on the streets of Charlotte during the Keith Scott demonstrations, serving as a lone sentry at times between demonstrators and police. Photos of him from that night still dominate his election website. And he chose to open his campaign at Marshall Park, a frequent community gathering point for the Scott marchers.

The former public defender has called for tougher reviews of police shootings, the end of the death penalty and the decriminalization of marijuana. He says instead of simply jailing defendants, the courthouse must do a better job identifying the roles mental health and substance abuse play in crime.

"I'm not running to be light on crime, but to be smart on crime," he says.

He also says Merriweather's call for an expungement clinic attempts to take credit from volunteer groups that already are leading the way.

Romain says he joined the county Republican Party in hopes of helping the GOP become more responsive to the needs of minority voters. He said he switched back due to disagreement with the Trump administration.

Some local Democrats link the change to Romain's political ambitions. He says that's to be expected.

"There's only one side that matters. It's the side of justice," he says. "I want to be among the people who help the system improve."

He says as a public defender and activist, he's been helping shape change for 20 years. And while the reasons for his sudden departure from the public defender's office has become the subject of conjecture in segments of the legal community, Romain says he left his former job for one reason only.

"I'm putting it all on the line, man. I'm all in," he says. "There's a risk to it. I'm willing to take it because I'm committed to the change that needs to be made."

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS