Memphis-area voters have booted out a Republican district attorney with a reputation for harsh tactics—which included getting a woman sentenced to prison for six years for registering to vote—in favor of a Democratic challenger promising reforms.
Amy Weirich, Republican district attorney for Shelby County, Tennessee, has been dumped by voters in favor of Democrat Steve Mulroy, who has promised to take a look at bail policies for the county and to start a conviction integrity unit to review prior cases for possible mistakes.
The election was Thursday, and as of noon Friday, Shelby County results have Mulroy firmly ahead, 76,280 votes to 59,364 votes. Mulroy, 58, is a law professor, former federal prosecutor, and a former civil rights lawyer for the Department of Justice under President Bill Clinton. His platform promises an emphasis on prioritizing violent offenses for prosecution and alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenses. He wants to avoid cash bail in cases where individual defendants aren’t flight risks or dangers to the community to avoid leaving them stuck in pretrial detention simply because they can’t pay. He also says he wants to increase spending on law enforcement and hire more police officers, and he endorses “red flag” laws to allow courts to take guns away from people deemed “dangerous.” (Read Reason‘s Jacob Sullum on the problems with such laws.)
Meanwhile, Weirich’s harsher methods and ethics have drawn criticism. In 2021, she prosecuted Pamela Moses for violating the law by attempting to register to vote. Moses had lost the right to vote in Tennessee for a previous conviction but said she had been told by a corrections officer that she could have her right to vote restored if she had completed probation. That officer was wrong. But Weirich’s office went after Moses, and when she insisted on a jury trial for the chance to prove her innocence, the D.A.’s office threw the book at her. When she was convicted, her office asked for and received a six-year sentence for Moses, seemingly as punishment for fighting back and not accepting a plea deal.
Subsequently, the state revealed that it was, in fact, their fault that Moses got bad advice and acknowledged its error at the time that Moses was convicted. A judge determined that prosecutors failed to disclose this evidence at the trial. The judge ordered a new trial for Moses, upon which Weirich announced her office was dropping the charges. Bolts magazine has more detail about the bizarre crusade against Moses and Tennessee’s harsh and confusing voter disenfranchisement mechanisms here.
It’s also worth noting that despite the tough-on-crime rhetoric on Weirich’s part, Memphis has seen the same kind of violent crime spikes that cities across the country have been experiencing for the past two years.
Considering the recent recall of progressive criminal justice reformer Chesa Boudin in San Francisco with the rejection of Weirich in Shelby County, it may be helpful to stop trying to make national trends out of these individual elections. Instead, consider that perhaps people want to feel safe without necessarily wanting the hammer of justice to come slamming down on people who clearly don’t deserve it (like Moses). The way Boudin approached reforms didn’t make people feel safe in the face of various public safety concerns, and Weirich’s tough stance and overly harsh conduct didn’t either.