How something called The Bart Talk shaped hundreds of judges, lawyers and others

The Observer editorial board

Deputy DA Bart Menser’s influence is felt throughout the criminal justice system.
Deputy DA Bart Menser’s influence is felt throughout the criminal justice system. 2010 file photo

Bart Menser, says outgoing District Attorney Andrew Murray, is like EF Hutton: When Bart Menser talks, people listen.

And talk he did, to literally hundreds of incoming prosecutors and other staffers in the Mecklenburg DA’s office over the past 30 years. As deputy district attorney, Menser would hold what Murray calls The Bart Talk with each new lawyer. Menser would make abundantly clear the expectations he and the office had of them: To act ethically at all times, to do the right thing and to remember that you don’t have much but your word.

Those lawyers he mentored went on to become judges and DAs and U.S. attorneys and among the sharpest lawyers in town. Menser’s influence is stamped not only all over the Mecklenburg district attorney’s office but throughout the criminal justice system.

Now 67, Menser is retiring this week and will get some hard-earned time with his young granddaughters. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, including the thousands of people who have never heard of him but were affected by his work, owe him a big thank you.

Menser had “the most profound impact on justice in Mecklenburg County of anyone in my lifetime,” defense lawyer Eben Rawls said at a retirement party for Menser on Thursday.

That’s quite a sweeping statement, especially to a room full of people who have had their own significant impacts on justice. But it captures the depth and breadth of Menser’s career: He tried murder cases, putting killers in prison for life. He helped develop a generation of prosecutors. And he made crucial behind-the-scenes process changes to improve the efficiency of the system, from the police department to the DA’s office to the courts.

More than anything, though, he was “the moral compass” of the DA’s office, Murray says, the standard bearer of core values. It is largely thanks to Menser, incoming DA Spencer Merriweather says, that Mecklenburg’s DA office has not had the ethical scandals several others around the country have had.

That Menser was here at all is an accomplishment in itself. Diagnosed with cancer at age 22, Menser was told then he had an 80 percent chance of dying within five years. That did not deter the UNC Morehead Scholar. He left the Navy, which he had joined upon graduation, and returned to UNC to earn his law degree. He started with the DA’s office in 1982 and, aside from a four-year stint in private practice, has been there ever since.

He’s proud of his work, but as he leaves he still sees ways to improve criminal justice. At the top of his list: Ensuring services will be in place for the 16- and 17-year-olds who are about to flood back into the juvenile system after Raise the Age legislation passed. Those teens are still young enough to have their life path altered, he told the editorial board last week, but only if the system helps rehabilitate them.

It’s a crucial point, and it’s Menser improving things, right up to the end.