CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - After 11 years as a career prosecutor, Spencer Merriweather is now the District Attorney in Mecklenburg County.
The 39-year-old was sworn in as Interim District Attorney on Monday morning to serve out the last year of Andrew Murray's term. Murray left to become the U.S Attorney for the Western District of NC.
Merriweather is the first African American DA in Mecklenburg County.
"I'm extremely excited. The challenges are great but also the possibilities are great," Merriweather said. "Having the opportunity to do justice, having the opportunity to earn the trust of the community, having the opportunity to partner with the community and affecting justice across our county is extremely exciting."
Merriweather graduated from Princeton University in 2000 and UNC-Chapel Hill Law School in 2005.
Merriweather, who lives in Charlotte but is originally from Mobile, Alabama, began his career as a prosecutor in traffic court, then he joined the domestic violence team. He says he has also worked drug prosecution, robbery felonies, and adult rape. At one point he supervised the habitual felon prosecution team. Merriweather spent the last year on the homicide prosecution team.
"I have a great team of prosecutors here to work with and I believe we do the job right. I believe we can do it a lot better as well so I'm excited about those possibilities," he said.
Merriweather knows he's facing a harsh reality.
"Some of the challenges are the fact that there's a lot of skepticism about the criminal justice system these days and what that means is. We've got to tell people exactly what it is we do," he said. "We have to show them exactly what our values are and that means being constantly in pursuit of just outcomes and equitable outcomes, making sure we're doing everything we can to keep our community safe, making sure that we're partnering with partners across our county and across our community and we'll do that. We'll be active in doing that. We'll be vigilant in doing that. That's a promise I know I can keep."
The interim District Attorney says he's not ready to talk about whether he'll make changes.
"I would tell you to stay tuned about specific policy initiatives," he said.
But in a year when Charlotte is seeing an increase in homicides, Merriweather says guns and felons will continue to be a focus.
"The first immediate thing that we know we need to do is to bring vigor to taking firearms out of the hands of felons and that's something that we'll be dedicating resources to in this office," he said. "But the long-term answer is helping divert people away from the behavior which results in homicides and that's not something you do overnight, that's not something you do next week, not next month. That's something you try to attack early. Our office, like prosecutor offices around the country, have had some impact in stemming the tide of domestic violence because we've been able to attack a certain type of behavior through intervention. We can do that a similar type of intervention in the way people resolve conflicts across the board."
Merriweather added, "You will be seeing some ways our office will find creative ways to partner with community organizations and institutions to try to do exactly that."
The Mecklenburg County District Attorney's office has been understaffed for years. it's estimated that at least 105 prosecutors are needed to handle the volume of work. The DA's office says they're understaffed by 20 Assistant District Attorneys.
"I plan on talking to every single community partner that we have and that includes legislators," Merriweather said. "We've gotten wonderful help from the County Commission as well the City Council and Charlotte and I promise you I will be speaking with all of them. People need to know exactly what sort of challenges we're facing in the criminal justice system and they need to be in on the solutions and how we can best solve those problems."
Officers with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have said that one of the biggest problems facing the community is repeat offenders - keeping them off the streets.
"I supervised our habitual felon prosecution team for a number of years. It's important to distinguish the hardened criminal from the person who is caught up in a cycle of addition and you don't treat those people – those offenders the same way," Merriweather said. "For the repeat offender who is the hardened criminal, who poses the risk of violence to our communities, that person will be dealt with harshly."
"For the person that needs a second chance, that needs a shot, that needs treatment, that needs to be restored - we're going to find an answer for that person too. Those answers aren't the same but we're committed to doing justice and doing the right thing," Merriweather said.
The interim term that Merriweather is serving will end on December 31, 2018. He says he intends to run for election for District Attorney next year.