Meet Amy Weirich, Shelby County’s first female district attorney.
It’s a rainy afternoon and Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich is sitting patiently at her desk while a photographer mills around her office. She jokes with him about a picture he once took of her that, shall we say, wasn’t too flattering. “I’m just glad it’s this end that you’re looking at,” she quips.
The notorious photo from a news story last summer gave readers a full-on view of her runner’s derriere. It spawned endless ribbing from subordinates who posted a “hammer” award on Weirich’s office door that reads, “Your assistants stand behind you,” and comments like, “Yours is the best behind to be behind.”
“I enjoyed it. I enjoyed getting grief,” she says. But right now, the only hint of glee is the glimmer in her eyes as she smiles sedately for the camera. “I feel like a Muppet,” she says, although it’s clear this is a lady who’s not only used to the spotlight, but also infinitely comfortable in it. Her smart black jacket and leopard-print skirt are a perfect reflection of her personality: no-nonsense with a touch of flair. “Score! Thanks, dude,” she says, as Vince Higgins, her communications director, leaves the room with a project “The General” has approved.
This past January, Weirich became Shelby County District Attorney General for the 30th Judicial District — the first female DA in county history. The position opened when incumbent Bill Gibbons left to work in the administration of Governor Bill Haslam, his one-time rival for the state’s top job. Before he departed for Nashville, however, Gibbons wanted a say in who would replace him, “and it became very important to him that I be that person,” says Weirich.
The veteran prosecutor and mother of four had worked in the DA’s office since 1991. Gibbons helped negotiate her appointment with his new boss, the then-governor-elect. “I guess if he were sitting here, [Gibbons] would tell you that [his recommendation] had to do with my commitment to prosecution, to my development in the courtroom, to my leadership abilities in the office and beyond, and I guess in his mind being the appropriate person for running this office and taking this office to that next level,” she says.
Gibbons cited all those reasons and more. “Really, two points: One, I said that she would do a good job because she is smart, focused, hard-driving, and well-prepared. Two, I felt, quite frankly, the governor could appoint her [because] she could then run and win an election. Nothing’s a given and she’ll be facing a campaign next year, but … I think she will run a [good] campaign and win.” Haslam came to town for Weirich’s swearing-in ceremony shortly after taking office, and Gibbons says her 10-minute acceptance speech was amazing. “Afterwards, the governor turned to me and said, ‘I have never known of anyone who could get up and give a speech like that without a single note or anything.’ I said, ‘Governor, what you just heard was, in effect, Amy Weirich giving a closing argument in a capital murder case.”
Not everyone is aware that the Shelby County DA’s office has more than 100 prosecutors. By the time of her appointment, Weirich, 46, certainly had paid some dues. She also had honed her straight-arrow persona during decades of taking down the bad guys, aggressively and publicly.
Although she deflects any implication that she was on a fast track within the DA’s office, Weirich did rise through the ranks. To hear her tell it, all she ever really wanted to be was a prosecutor, her brief flirtation with veterinary medicine notwithstanding.
As assistant district attorney, she served as division leader for the Special Prosecution Unit and chief prosecutor for the DA’s Gang and Narcotics Prosecution Unit. Along the way she received numerous awards, including the Board of Directors’ Trial Award for Outstanding Advocacy in Capital Cases. It came from the Association of Government Attorneys in Capital Litigation. Weirich has routinely led seminars for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference and the National District Attorneys Association. She’s also a member of the Leo Bearman Sr. American Inn of Court. “There’s a saying at 201 Poplar of being ‘Weirich ready,’” says Gibbons. “Basically, what that means is having every ‘t’ crossed and every ‘i’ dotted. That’s her reputation.”
One of Weirich’s more recent high-profile cases was the Noura Jackson murder trial in 2009. Arrested at age 18 in 2005, Jackson was accused of stabbing her 39-year-old mother to death in their East Memphis home after arguments over money and the young woman’s boyfriend. Jackson later was sentenced to 20 years and nine months in prison for second-degree murder. Weirich served as lead prosecutor on the case. She declined to discuss it because an appeal is pending. (Valerie Corder, Jackson’s defense attorney, declined to be specific as well. She did say that she and Jackson are hoping to win a new trial.)
Storied defense attorney Leslie Ballin has known Weirich in all her years as a prosecutor — she started in the DA’s office right out of the University of Memphis’ Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law — and calls her “tough as nails.” The two have faced off on numerous occasions, but their sometimes-adversarial relationship in court is suffused with the kind of respect that comes from circling a worthy opponent. On a recent evening, Ballin encountered Weirich’s former boss after Gibbons took on his state-commissioner role for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Ballin told Gibbons: “I never thought I’d say this to you, Bill, but goddammit, I miss you. Amy’s tough.”
Tough but honest. “She’ll come at you straight on and not hit you from behind,” Ballin says. “That’s the way it should be.” In his opinion, the one bad thing about Weirich’s appointment is the fact that she isn’t trying cases anymore. Not directly, anyway. “I thought when it was announced that she was going to be district attorney, the best trial lawyer [in town] was being taken out of the courtroom,” he says.
But as the old saying goes, you can take the girl out of the courtroom but you can’t quite take the courtroom out of the girl. Two of Weirich’s biggest priorities ahead of next year’s elections are curbing youth and domestic violence countywide. (Right now she’s filling the last two years of Gibbons’ eight-year term and is gearing up for the Republican primary in 2012. Two possible Democratic contenders include former city councilwoman and state representative Carol Chumney and attorney Glenn Wright. Chumney says she hasn’t decided whether to run and Wright could not be reached by press time.)
With the overall crime rate down about 26 percent, Weirich and her staff continue wrestling the dial downward. One of her aspirations is to re-form the Metro Gang Unit, which disbanded in December 2005. The unit was a joint effort between the Memphis Police and Shelby County Sheriff’s departments. With a new police director (Toney Armstrong), a new sheriff (Bill Oldham), and a new district attorney in office, the three officials have coalesced around the idea of cracking down on gangs.
U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton also is involved, especially since Memphis recently was selected as one of six U.S. cities to participate in President Obama’s National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. “We’ve got to get a handle on the number of people 24 and under committing crimes and being victimized by crime,” Weirich says.
Part of that has to do not just with putting folks away, but offering convicted or would-be offenders alternatives to crime. The DA’s office coordinates with organizations such as HopeWorks and Lifeline to Success, both nonprofits, to help ex-cons and others on the fringe transition to a more productive lifestyle. Another approach is a mentoring program for truant children — those with at least five unexcused absences from school in a given academic year. The message: Education is important. By pairing such children with people who can set a good example, “it helps strengthen that message,” Weirich says.
Besides, she observes, so many kids think they can get away with anything until they turn 18, “and that’s just not the reality.” And in cases where youngsters are being victimized or coerced into criminal behavior, inroads must be made. Fear of retaliation is a big roadblock for police and prosecutors in these cases. “Nobody wants to be a snitch,” she says. “Nobody wants to make that call.”
In the case of domestic violence, not many battered spouses or significant others are enthusiastic about calling, either. Again, the reason is reprisals, or often a fear for children in the home. “If we had an answer, we’d go out and fix it and make it stop,” Weirich says.
But a task of that magnitude is never-ending. It can also be a psychological tightrope.
“What we’re still struggling with in terms of our office is getting victims to follow through,” she says. “We get plenty of victims who call and report the crime. They want it to stop for the moment. They want the offender — typically, statistically the male — out of the house. But then [they say], ‘He loves me. It’s okay. He’s not going to do this anymore.’ Sometimes that’s true. But we don’t see as much success as we do repeat violence to that victim in the home.”
For victims who actually do follow through on prosecuting abusive spouses, the journey has just begun. Once a police officer arrests the perpetrator and a case is on the court docket, the victim must find the time and means to get through all the dates and office visits to come.
“Well, this woman — typically it’s the woman that’s the victim and it’s the male that’s the offender — is now faced with several other issues as a result of having been the victim of domestic violence,” Weirich says. “She probably has children who were either in the home when that final event occurred that caused her to call the police, and/or they’ve been in the home every other night when that violence has occurred and she hasn’t called the police.
“So what can we as a community do to wrap our arms around not only that woman who’s a victim of the criminal justice system, but those children whose names may not be victims on a slot on a police arrest ticket, but they’re victims nonetheless because they’ve watched it and grown up with it and seen it and heard it and touched it?” The answer, says Weirich, is the soon-to-open Family Safety Center on Madison Avenue. Construction has begun, although the center’s opening has been slowed by funding issues.
Weirich describes the Family Safety Center as a one-stop shop for any and all domestic violence needs. Those include civil, criminal, health, and social services that keep victims from having to negotiate a maze of disparate agencies that often make things worse. “With the opening of the Family Safety Center, we’re going to take all those agencies that have been here and have been working to provide healing to the whole family unit — we’re going to put them all under one roof and hopefully make it a little bit less stressful for a victim of domestic violence.”
Weirich says her interest in the problem is a natural byproduct of her work as a prosecutor, not to mention her own perspective as a spouse and mother. Family is very important to the new district attorney. She and her husband, attorney Charles “Chuck” Michael Weirich Jr., who runs his own practice, have four children ranging from kindergarten age to college. She doesn’t share specific details about them for security reasons, but Weirich is happy to talk about their vibrant, competitive personalities. The couple’s oldest son is majoring in liberal arts right now, but wants to go to law school. She misses him for many reasons, although lately it’s because he’s not around to help drive his younger siblings to their many activities. She says she wouldn’t be surprised if one of her middle daughters becomes president of the United States.
“All my children are pretty special,” she says. They’re noisy too. And like most kids, they all have their issues and idiosyncrasies. So what Weirich does to get some peace is rise early and go for a run. “I get up very early in the morning before the rest of the house does,” she says.
She also makes the effort to cook dinner whenever she possibly can. It’s the only form of coddling she practices at home.
“I don’t baby my kids,” she says. “I’m not going to do their science projects and they know that.” But she will read to them. One of her daughters still occasionally asks her mother to read her something. Under the glass on Weirich’s desktop at work is a hand-scribbled picture with “You’re the bomb, Mom,” written in what looks like Magic Marker.
As for Chuck Weirich, he’s an involved dad, his wife says — one might even call him a soccer dad. “If I’m not there, chances are very good he’s on the sidelines rooting for our kids or chastising them if that’s what needs to be done.” That level of support has come in handy on the several occasions when Weirich has had to miss her children’s milestones because of a trial that just wouldn’t end. Or a jury that just wouldn’t quit deliberating. “He’s very patient, very kind, very smart,” she says.
She admires her kids, too — their work ethic, resilience, and social lives.
“They can keep in touch with 30,000 people and it’s difficult for me to get out 30 Christmas cards when the time is right,” she says, chuckling about the social media generation in which her children are growing up. Those Christmas cards are important too. The Weirichs are devout Catholics who attend St. Louis Church. The DA doesn’t see a conflict with that devotion and her profession. Ultimately, what she does achieves a measure of peace for the community, and peace is what her religion is all about. “I don’t say it lightly when I say the mission of this office is to pursue the guilty and protect the innocent,” she says. “We do a lot of that every day.”
Says Judge Bobby Carter of Criminal Court Division III: “She is thorough, intelligent, diligent, and effective.” Back in his attorney days, Carter and Weirich worked together on a case in which the conviction of a Mississippi man was finally upheld. The man, Richard Odom, had been accused of raping and murdering an elderly woman in 1991 in a Medical Center parking garage. He was sentenced to death in 1992, but the case dragged on through the appellate system for years. “[Weirich] and I were co-counsel and tried Odom for the third time. She was passionate without being preachy — a real pleasure to work with.”
Now, in Weirich’s new role, those courtroom skills are at work in a different way. She keeps close tabs on the trials playing out in the various courtrooms, but she also attends to her many administrative responsibilities.
One of her goals has been to expand the physical space allotted for prosecutors. “That may sound like something pretty insignificant, but you’ve got prosecutors sharing offices with prosecutors, and other people sharing offices with other people, and it’s difficult to have a lengthy, meaningful conversation with a victim of a sensitive case. It’s difficult to do the work of the DA’s office when we’re crawling all over each other.” Recently, the gang and domestic violence units, along with the Drug Task Force, moved into new space across the street from the mother office in the Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar.
Yet another administrative task is to keep hiring the best and brightest. “It’s important to the work of this office that we have tough, fair-minded prosecutors willing to stand up and be the voice of the community,” Weirich says. Kind of like the eager young prosecutor she once was, and the district attorney general and mother she has become. “I hope at the end of the day and at the end of my life that my kids know it wasn’t just a job, that it wasn’t just a place that mom went to work from 8 to 8 every day. That it was a part of who I am. And I hope, too, that they look with pride on some of the things that I’ve accomplished and some of the things that this office has accomplished, and hopefully will continue to accomplish under my leadership.”