With Election Day on Aug. 4 and early voting set to begin on July 15, the candidates for Shelby County District Attorney General each think the other is a seriously bad choice for the job.
Incumbent Amy Weirich, the GOP standard-bearer, and attorney Steve Mulroy, who emerged as the Democratic Primary winner, squared off on Monday night during the candidate forum that the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis hosted at Saint Andrew A.M.E. Church at 867 S. Parkway East.
What ensued was a high-stakes, give-and-take exchange that reflected stark differences in positions and disagreement about facts and truth.
“It was spirited. It definitely was spirited,” said Mulroy. “It probably was one of the most spirited debates we’ve had in Shelby County in a while. But I think it’s because there are very, very stark differences between the two candidates and voters are being given a real choice.”
Weirich said it’s important for voters “to understand that our two philosophies about our office and the criminal justice system are diametrically opposed. He thinks the system is too tough in some regards and I know it is not tough enough.”
Mulroy used his opening statement to say he was tired of Shelby County’s district attorney’s office “being the worst” in multiple ways, naming prosecutorial misconduct, not sharing required evidence, making prejudicial statements to a jury and racially disproportionate outcomes.
“But most of all, we’re worst when it comes to crime,” said Mulroy. “We can do better. We must do better. … vote for change so that I can help make Shelby County’s streets safer and its justice system fairer.”
Weirich quickly aligned with “the victims of the crime that every day, our office fights for.”
“The statistics that my opponent likes to share about the crime wave are just factually wrong. Crime was going down very well before the pandemic, and we’ve just seen a decline in the last quarter and at the end of last year. So, don’t be fooled by the smoke and mirrors. Look to the truth and look to the facts.”
Tonyaa Weathersbee, a columnist for The Commercial Appeal, served as moderator.
“Wow. That’s some kind of start there, and there’s some gloves off,” she said.
The first topic stemmed from the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs Wade and effectively making the issue of abortion a state matter. The candidates were asked if they would aggressively prosecute violators of Tennessee law.
“The law in the state of Tennessee says that a district attorney is not allowed to make reckless and careless statements about cases they will and will not prosecute…. So I can’t and I won’t stand here tonight and rattle off a list of offenses that this district attorney will not prosecute,” Weirich said.
“We follow the law in the district attorney’s office. The police department investigates and this issue quite frankly is still very much turbulent and a moving target. And when the dust settles and we see where we are, we will handle this issue as we do everything else: with the facts, with the evidence, with the law, and always, always, always coupled with justice and coupled with mercy.”
As a policy matter, Mulroy said he would “treat things very, very differently from Ms. Weirich. I don’t think the criminal justice system should be used on issues of reproductive choice. And as a result, I think those kinds of prosecutions would be extremely low priorities….”
The candidates agreed that prosecuting the homeless under the state’s new Equal Access to Public Property Act would be a low priority, but took different routes in making their points.
They then were asked to respond to this question: “In light of the high cost per incarcerated person and the high recidivism rate, is prison the best option for lower-level crimes? If not, what else have we to implement?”
“The prison beds are occupied by repeat offenders, by violent offenders,” said Weirich. “Our office works hard every day to make sure that, in the interest of judicial economy, we are doing our job as it relates to public safety. The individuals who are in prison have killed, raped, robbed, committed violent crime, or have continued to victimize citizens in this community over and over and over again. …”
Mulroy responded with a rhetorical question: “The DAs office never seeks prison sentences for non-violent offenders or for low-level offenders?” He then brought forward the case of local activist Pam Moses, who was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to six years in jail for voter fraud. Moses subsequently was released after it surfaced that she had been given incorrect information about her voting eligibility.
Weirich said Mulroy was “playing fast and loose with the truth,” emphasizing that her office had not been made aware at trial time of the information regarding what Moses had been incorrectly told.
“Once they shared with us that they had forgotten to give us a piece of that information, I made the decision to be done with the Pamela Moses prosecution. But to stand here and say that we went after her is just absurd.”
From that point to the end, Mulroy and Weirich sparred over multiple questions, points and statements asserted as truth.
“We fight hard every day for the victims of crime. And I’m very proud of the innovative approaches and methods that we have created … to keep people from coming back to the system,” Weirich said in her closing statement.
“But we have to hold offenders accountable when we’re talking about violent crime.”
Mulroy said he heard one thing in Weirich’s closing remarks that he agreed with:
“Those who break the laws in Shelby County should be held accountable. That’s true for criminals and it’s also true for prosecutors…”
Ultimately, he said, voters must weigh whether they feel safer now than they did when Weirich became district attorney.
“So, if you don’t, I think you should vote for change,” he said.
Expanding on the need for change he asked, “Did you know that in the modern era, Shelby County has never had a democratic district attorney? That’s what makes this election so special. Because it’s not just about Amy Weirich or Steve Mulroy. It’s about history and it’s about change. … We can do better if we work together for change.”