Spencer Merriweather was sworn in as Mecklenburg County’s District Attorney at a time when homicides are on the rise and the city is trying to heal following several police fatal shootings of people of color.
After spending nearly 11 years as an assistant DA, Merriweather, the first African American to hold the county’s top DA post, has no blinders on about the challenges he faces. He says he is approaching the job with a belief that much change is needed, and he’s already put in place some of that changes.
In December, Merriweather restructured the units that handle violent crimes, sexual assaults and domestic violence. Under the new structure, a Violent Crimes Team will prosecute felony crimes, such as robberies and assaults, and a Special Victims Team will prosecute sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence cases. He believes the restructured units will bring together prosecutors with expertise in these areas to better manage the cases.
Merriweather says finding ways to provide more help for domestic violence victims is a high priority. According to police officials, last year, 27 percent of all homicides in Charlotte were related to domestic violence, and the first four homicides this year were domestic violence incidents.
In this Q&A, Merriweather talked with reporter Gwendolyn Glenn about creating a family justice center in Mecklenburg County to empower and support domestic violence victims:
District Attorney Spencer Merriweather: A center serves the purpose of putting law enforcement, service providers, prosecutors and other agencies under one roof so a survivor of domestic violence can be welcome in a nurturing environment that meets all of their needs at one time. They can remain engaged with all of the different people who can help and those who can hold the assailant accountable. If a survivor is engaged, that’s a survivor who in a few months or a year can be in a good place to testify against the assailant.
Gwendolyn Glenn: Do you have a timetable for when you’d like to see this justice center operational?
SM: We’re in the planning stage now. There’s great momentum for this family justice center, so I believe it will happen. We have a steering committee and a team of people working on it but others need to be involved, including the faith community, health officials, government and non-profit partners. It could take 18 to 24 months to get going because when you do it, you want to do it right.
GG: Let’s switch gears to the tension between the police and some people of color around the city. Some think there is some hesitancy by this office to prosecute police officers when they’ve been involved in fatal shootings.
SM: One of the things my predecessor committed our office to do, and I will continue, is the idea of responsible transparency. We need to make sure that when decisions are made based on the law and facts, we need to make sure the community understands exactly why we make the decisions that we do. But transparency shouldn’t start after we have a police shooting…but before it happens, people need to know how the DA’s office works. It’s critically important for me to go out and engage with community organizations and not wait on some sort of traumatic experience to talk about what your DA does on your behalf. That is something we have to get better at.
GG: How do you plan to do that?
SM: I have to go out and meet them where they are, see their organizations and the work that they do and ask people to come to my office. I want to be as visible and accessible as possible.
GG: Would you think a different approach should have been taken in cases where police officers involved in shootings have not been prosecuted, for example the Keith Scott fatal shooting that resulted in days of protests? The state tried CMPD officer Randall Kerrick for fatally shooting Jonathan Ferrell but it ended with a hung jury. Should that case have been retried?
SM: I won’t review and assess past cases, but I do have confidence that those cases were assessed based on the law and facts, and I’ll continue to provide the same assessment. It’s important that the community know what sort of things I’m looking at when I’m making determinations, and I think the previous administration, of which I was a part, did a lot of that already, but I think it’s important that we tell people what the law is and how it is being applied.
GG: How do you weigh in on race and justice when it comes to the court system? Sentencing is not always meted out equally when it comes to people of color and others.
SM: The first thing I can do is make sure I’m applying the law right and that people are getting a fair shake. I can promise consistency in applying the law equitably and make it so people understand that the law works for everyone, no matter what you look like. It’s taken many generations to build a system that’s gotten to the point where we have a trust deficit now, and it won’t be erased overnight. One thing we can do is take hard looks at what we’re doing internally, because if you call it out you have a better chance of eradicating it, so you look to identify where those disparities exist and do they exist in sentencing. African Americans and people of color are well overrepresented in our courts and…the larger question is how they ended up in the court in the first place. That’s where you wonder what’s going on and need to take a harder look at.
GG: What do you tell those who might say I’ve heard this before and nothing’s changed over the years.
SM: I’m not sure they have heard what I’m saying before. I’m not sure we have opened up and described in detail what it is we want to accomplish and what we do, how many steps there are in the process before a case gets to trial, how many things we think about when we consider punishment, when we decide if we have enough evidence to proceed with a case. To the extent that I can open some of that up and be transparent, I will have done a lot of good.
GG: On a personal level, what is something most people don’t know about you?
SM: I love to cook but haven’t been able to do it in a long time. It gives me some time to myself. I don’t like to cook the same thing twice, but if I have made something twice, it’s Jamaican Run Down Seafood Stew. I got married there and had the stew, and we love it.
Merriweather says he also wants to help ex-offenders lead productive lives by making it easier for them to have their records expunged. A state law went into effect in December 2017 that, among other things, reduces from 15 years to five years the time that a nonviolent offender must wait to apply for an expungement, and from 15 years to 10 years for violent offenses.
He says he is also looking more closely at how the system deals with mentally challenged people and plans to hold a faith forum at his office this year. He says when his term expires this year, he will run for a full term in November.
About Spencer Merriweather
Merriweather was sworn in last November and is the first African-American to hold the job. He was appointed by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to finish the term of his former boss, Republican Andrew Murray, who recommended Merriweather for the position. Murray stepped down after being nominated by President Trump to serve as U.S. Attorney for the state’s Western District.
Merriweather, the only child of retired public school teachers in Mobile, Alabama, graduated with a BA degree in politics from Princeton. After working for U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, he says he decided to attend law school. It was during an internship in the District Attorney’s office here in 2003, while he was in law school at UNC Chapel Hill, that Merriweather says he decided to be a prosecutor. He saw families losing loved ones to crime and realized that prosecutors have to help them through the criminal process.
Gwendolyn Glenn covers education for public radio station WFAE (90.7 FM).