CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - A career-long Mecklenburg prosecutor who says he will help improve the county's criminal-justice system from the inside out apparently will have four more years to make good on his promise.
Spencer Merriweather raced to an early and resounding 16,000-vote lead Tuesday night over former assistant public defender Toussaint Romain in the race for district attorney.
With more than 60 percent of the precincts reporting, Merriweather, the interim DA, had 80 percent of the vote to Romain's 20 percent. Without a Republican opponent in the wings, Tuesday's winner of the Democratic Primary will serve a four-year term starting in 2019.
"All the issues facing the courts didn't get solved tonight," Merriweather said. "But it's a beginning. I've been entrusted with great faith and confidence by the people of this county, and I've got to get to work."
Merriweather, 39, becomes the first African American ever elected district attorney, one of the most powerful offices in Mecklenburg County government. He would serve as the top prosecutor in the state's largest, local court district, directing a staff of 200 that wields sweeping influence over the lives of tens of thousands of victims of crime as well as those accused of committing them.
His apparent victory comes at a time when all levels of the criminal justice system are being subjected to unprecedented scrutiny.
Both candidates ran on pledges of reform. Romain, though, said the system is broken and that Merriweather was too much a product of the status quo to fix it. Romain also promised to bring a far more critical eye to police shootings and what he sees as other institutional abuses.
Going into the vote, Merriweather, who late last year was appointed to complete the term of Republican Andrew Murray, was seen as the clear favorite. The former student body president at Princeton worked as a Mecklenburg assistant district attorney for more than a decade before Murray — President Trump's choice for U.S. Attorney in Charlotte — recommended him as his replacement.
Since his appointment, Merriweather has dropped the financial requirements of his office's deferred-prosecution program. The initiative helps first-time offenders avoid trials and criminal convictions but had required them to pay down court-assigned restitution first.
"The amount of money in your pocket should not determine if you get a second chance," Merriweather says.
Merriweather also created a new team of veteran prosecutors to handle domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse while working toward a one-stop service center for victims of those crimes.
Merriweather also says he and his staff are attending more neighborhood meetings and soliciting more feedback — all aimed at rebuilding trust.