By Brittany Brown
MEMPHIS, TN — ‘The DA’s office does give a sense of hope like Memphis is moving in the right direction, and that’s what this year has been about: progress,” said one community organizer
Shelby County’s first Democratic district attorney in decades, Steve Mulroy, just crossed the 100-day mark of being in office, following a campaign that promised to bring progress and change to the criminal justice system.
On the campaign trail, Mulroy prioritized tackling violent crime and reforming the cash bail system, among other efforts to restore public trust in the criminal justice system.
In the days after the campaign, MLK50 talked to people who supported Mulroy and asked them what they wanted to see the new DA accomplish while in office. So far, Mulroy has delivered on many of their priorities, including increased hiring and expanded diversity in the DA’s office, while launching the Justice Review Unit and revamping the Economic Crimes Unit.
The path to plant seeds for reform hasn’t been a smooth one. Just as Mulroy took office on Aug. 31, two high-profile incidents shook Memphis: the kidnapping, assault and death of Eliza Fletcher and the livestreamed fatal shooting spree that left several people injured and dead. The city and the new progressive DA were catapulted into the spotlight, along with questions around how to continue to support and push for criminal justice reform in face of violent crime.
Still, Mulroy seemed to remain firm in his commitment to reform the criminal justice system while keeping violent crime as his top priority. One case highlighting a stark difference between Mulroy and his predecessor is the recent release of Courtney Anderson, who’d been sentenced to 162 years in prison for multiple counts of theft and forgery, an excessive sentence. After serving 25 years, he was recently released after a Shelby County criminal court judge brought the case to Mulroy’s office. “We never could have set the sentences straight if Amy Weirich was still in office. She was the original prosecutor on the case,” said Judge Paula Skahan.
One hundred days isn’t long in an eight-year term – the nation’s longest elected prosecutor term. But Mulroy is taking stock of what he’s done in that time.
So we’re taking a quick look back at what he’s accomplished so far and revisiting some of the people we talked to see what they think of Mulroy’s promises and actions.
Create more transparency and accountability
In August, Earle Fisher was among those calling for increased transparency from Mulroy. Now, Fisher says, the marked difference between Mulroy and former DA Amy Weirich is his commitment to open and honest public engagement: “[Mulroy is] not running from accountability, and I think this is one of the more fundamental things that you can ask for and demand of people in elected office,” said Fisher, founder of Up the Vote 901 and senior pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Whitehaven.
While remaining cautiously pragmatic and optimistic, Fisher believes Shelby County residents are still growing accustomed to Mulroy as the new DA and learning about his values and priorities in office.
Tikelia Rucker, political organizer with Memphis for All and a member of the Justice and Safety Alliance, is excited to see Mulroy taking steps to restore trust in the community. Like Fisher, Rucker believes Mulroy’s openness with the Shelby County community is the first step to reform. More representation and transparency are what the community wants to see happen sooner rather than later, she said.
Establish a Conviction Review Unit
The new Justice Review Unit, launched Dec. 1, is one of the newest offices in Tennessee to take a look back at wrongful convictions and sentences, and officer-involved shootings. The Davidson County District Attorney’s Office in Nashville established a Conviction Review Unit in 2017, making it the first and only unit of its kind in Tennessee at the time.
Now, five years later, Memphis follows, but with one major difference — an additional review of wrongful sentences (Nashville’s office only reviews convictions), which will be a high-focus area for the JRU, Mulroy said. Also, the Economic Crimes Unit, revamped and launched Nov. 4, will focus on worker exploitation, an issue Mulroy says is rampant in Shelby County.
Rucker considers the new Justice Review Unit a major accomplishment so soon in the DA’s term. Still, she’s also critical of how information about the unit and its application process will be regularly shared inside prisons. The JRU application is available online and by mail only to incarcerated people and their attorneys. Some prisons don’t have internet access or may encounter issues receiving mail.
William Arnold served on Mulroy’s transition team and was a member of the Justice Review Unit working group. Mulroy’s commitment to establishing the JRU shows it wasn’t “just a campaign promise, but a piece of hope,” said Arnold, a formerly incarcerated person who was exonerated in 2021 after a wrongful conviction in Nashville.
Arnold wants to see Mulroy continue to enlist the voices, opinions and actions of regular people in the community while taking an objective, humane and case-by-case approach to prosecution.
“In Tennessee and in a lot of Southern states, we have politicians who say they’re tough on crime, but they’re really tough on people,” Arnold said. “Take into consideration that a person’s sentence may not match the crime and that locking them up and throwing away the key is not always the answer.”