Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather announced sweeping changes to his office’s organization and priorities this week that aim to help confront a backlog of homicide and violent crime cases brought about by a shutdown of the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic and a recent rise in violent crime locally.
In a press release on Wednesday, Merriweather laid out a plan to prioritize violent crime prosecutions, increasing the amount of prosecutors on his Violent Crimes Team by more than 50% by replacing the existing Drug Team and Crimes Against Property Team with a new Felony Crimes Team of about a dozen trial prosecutors.
Those two teams will be replaced by a single team that will focus on drug, property and other general felony crimes. Merriweather’s plan also calls for prosecutors to refer simple drug possession cases outside of the court system to recovery agencies and other service providers, hopefully freeing court resources to better focus on violent offenses.
His office expects to implement the changes by February 2021.
There are currently about 700 defendants awaiting trial in Mecklenburg County Superior Court, which resumed seeing cases this week with limited capacity and only in one courtroom. That figure includes more than 100 homicide defendants and about 150 defendants charged in other violent crimes, according to the D.A.’s office.
“While COVID-19 has presented challenges for our courts, we know the great anguish endured by victims and families who are awaiting justice,” Merriweather stated in the release. “Without a substantial change in our course of action after months of court closures, we are facing the very real possibility that it could take more than three years before some violent crimes make their way to trial and even longer for homicide cases. That is unacceptable for victims, and it is unacceptable for the entire community. Today marks the beginning of a new path forward.”
As this Charlotte Magazine article from April described, however, the District Attorney’s office has been overwhelmed and underfunded since long before COVID-19 clamped down on the local courts.
The long wait for justice
Lucille Puckett, founder of anti-violence organization Take Back our H.O.O.D.S, told Queen City Nerve in October that one of the hardest parts of her work is to console victims’ families who have to wait years for justice after an arrest.
After all, Puckett herself is one of those family members. Her 26-year-old son Shawn Harbin Jr. was murdered on March 22, 2016. Detectives arrested and charged 32-year-old Talvi Moore for Harbin’s murder in April 2017, but he still hasn’t been brought to trial. Moore was released on bond, adding to Puckett’s anguish.
Earlier this year, Puckett said Moore was offered a plea deal with a five-year sentence, though he turned it down. Her own case is indicative of an issue she’s seen among many of the families she works with, Puckett said.
“We have a judicial system who is giving these people a slap on the wrists who are committing homicides,” Puckett said. “My son was shot one time in the back, one time in the chest, and three times in the head, and they want to plea bargain with him and offer him five years. When you’ve got a judicial system who don’t value life, why should anyone out here who’s walking these streets and carrying guns value life? Anybody’s life?”
In September, a judge relaxed Moore’s 24-hour house arrest conditions. “The judge allowed him to be free to kill again between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.,” Puckett told Queen City Nerve. She’s unsure when he will stand trial.
District attorney deprioritizes drug crimes
While Merriweather’s priority with the new reshuffling within his office is to prosecute violent crimes more quickly, another aspect involves changing the office’s approach to drug prosecutions, building on local efforts across the justice system in recent years to alleviate the burden of mass incarceration and pretrial detention at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center.
“Much of the community conversation in 2020 has focused on the criminal justice system and equity within that system,” Wednesday’s release read. “The pandemic has brought many of the system’s challenges into stark view, and DA Merriweather believes it is critical to seek out strategies that improve the work of justice while also increasing efficiencies and promoting safety.”
According to the release, while the newly formed Felony Crimes Team (FCT) will place an emphasis on the sale and trafficking of drugs, as well as drug crimes linked to violence or weapons, prosecutors will now generally refer simple drug possession cases outside of the court system to recovery agencies and other service providers, allowing prosecutors to direct the resources of the criminal justice system to violent offenders.
The FCT will also increasingly refer non-violent defendants to Mecklenburg County’s Recovery Courts when it is clear that substance use disorder or addiction is the key driver of the crime at hand.
“It’s time for us to employ new strategies and better focus our resources on the crimes that most endanger our neighborhoods,” Merriweather stated. “A change in our approach to drug possession cases will bolster our efforts to confront violent crime. It means we can get help for those who need help and stop those who need to be stopped.”
Stay tuned to qcnerve.com for a full interview with Merriweather about the reorganization of his office and other issues facing the district attorney’s office on our latest episode of the Nooze Hounds podcast, to be released later today.
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