Story by: Glenn Burkins
Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather III says his office will shift resources in 2020 to prosecute more violent crimes — especially homicides and crimes committed with guns.
After taking 13 homicide cases to trial in 2019, Merriweather said his office has asked the court system to prepare for 20 such trials in 2020.
Merriweather laid out those priorities and others in a meeting with reporters last week.
The shift comes as Charlotte looks back on a year that saw 107 criminal homicides in 2019 — one of its highest homicide counts on record. As Mecklenburg County grows and encounters new public safety challenges, Merriweather said, the entire criminal justice system must evolve with it.
“This means finding new ways to achieve justice swiftly in our courts,” he said. “This means rethinking the way that we work with our partners from law enforcement. This also means asking our state legislative authorities to re-evaluate old conventions and give us the tools that we need to keep our community safe.”
Among his top priorities, Merriweather said he will lobby lawmakers in Raleigh to empower state judges to deny bail to defendants they deemed dangerous to the community. Under current state law, except in cases involving homicide, judges must set conditions for release while defendants await trial.
Merriweather compared North Carolina’s bail requirement to federal statutes, which permit federal judges to deny bail in the interest of public safety.
“And so today I’ve become the first district attorney in the state of North Carolina to publicly call for a legislative end to our reliance on money (bail) to keep our community safe…” he said.
Other 2020 priorities outlined by Merriweather include:
- Using technology and working with the court system to make criminal prosecutions faster and more efficient. Under the current system, he said, “even the simplest of cases can take well over a year to be scheduled for trial.”
- Merriweather said he wants to place prosecutors in high-crime communities to work more closely with victims and residents. “It could mean mobile units. It could mean office hours in a church basement,” he said. “But I think that the presence of a prosecutor, the presence of an attorney, who is dedicated solely to the safety of a community is critical for confidence in our justice system.
- Later this year, Merriweather said, his office will partner with community groups to open a resource center for crime victims and their families. He said the center would be a “critical first step” toward creating a full-service “family justice center, which would “meet the immediate emergency health, wellness and protective needs of people who were in harm’s way.”