By Rory Fleming
Amy Weirich, the Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee, District Attorney, has never really been tested by the popularity contest of democracy. She looks like she’s in trouble. Appointed by Republican Governor Bill Haslam in 2011, in a state with eight-year terms for elected prosecutors, her only electoral contest so far was against television judge Joe Brown, who local commentators said was a “joke” of a candidacy.
This year, she has a stronger challenger in Linda Harris, a respected Black attorney on the Democratic ticket. Voters in Shelby County, where the residents are majority Black, have voted for Democrats in each Presidential election since 1992. On the other hand, Weirich is a white Republican.
This fertile political ground is where one former member of top management at The Appeal magazine has risen up like an enraged phoenix. Alex Bassos, the project director at Justice Research Group, is now also the senior advisor for Memphis Watch, a new organization bringing public attention to Weirich’s troubled tenure as DA. While Bassos and other members of The Appeal’s old management suite were criticized for mistreating their employees, who ended up taking control and turned the organization into a worker-owned co-op, it is also true that the Bassos and his peers led the publication to becoming one of the top law enforcement accountability watchdog organizations in the US.
Memphis Watch is behind a mobile digital billboard in the city with Weirich’s face on it, as well as the words “REPEAT OFFENDER.” The ad goes on to note that a Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project report from 2017 found Weirich’s office’s prosecutorial misconduct record to be the worst in her state. Researchers examined all state appellate opinions from 2010 to 2015 for several states, including Tennessee, then ranked each DA office for prosecutorial misconduct findings and reversals due to misconduct (per capita).
Amy Weirich was also one of the first District Attorneys national media probed for misconduct issues in the 21st century, leading to a lengthy New York Times Magazine story about her failed prosecution of Noura Jackson, who once stood accused of killing her mother. Weirich and one of her assistants hid exculpatory evidence, and Weirich engaged in an impermissible oral argument when she repeatedly screamed at the defendant, stating “Just tell us where you were, Noura!” That article also acknowledged several other findings by appellate courts that Weirich or members of her office committed various forms of prosecutorial misconduct over the years.
Yet, such scrutiny of a sitting DA used to be unheard of. Until the 2010s, the moral authority of prosecutors was seldom challenged. A number of factors, especially former St. Louis County, Missouri DA Bob McCulloch’s refusal to charge the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014 and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement, changed the media landscape. Weirich’s response was to go ballistic on social media, calling the prestigious newspaper the “pro-crime New York Times.
When asked about the billboard by MLK50, a local nonprofit news outlet, Memphis Watch’s Bassos explained that the ad is just as much about Weirich as it is sending a message to the local political machine. He said, “We want her and the political elite in Memphis to know we are here, we are watching, we are loud and we don’t go away or play by polite norms for exposing people’s records.”
Such tactics might seem harsh, but the undeniable reality is that the job of an elected prosecutor is too different to compare to the indirect way politicians in Congress inadvertently harm people they never meet. In our adversarial legal system, prosecutors do in-person battle against criminal suspects in open court, seeking to vanquish their opponents. That vanquishing is literally real on a physical level, as prosecutors take freedom from people and deliver them to prison cells. Via the death penalty, they extinguish their lives.
Despite having tremendous power, very few people actually know what District Attorneys do and who their local DA is. Weirich’s political tenability in Memphis may be hinged on her remaining in the background, especially given the mix of her misconduct record and demographic factors.
As originally reported by MLK50, an organizer was handing flyers out to people going to the Shelby County courthouse when one woman, who is Black, took a flyer and asked, “Is she Black?” The organizer responded that Weirich is white. The woman’s next question was, “Do we trust her?” The organizer said no, and the woman responded, “We’re going to get her out of there then.”
Rory Fleming is a freelance writer and licensed attorney.