Shelby County District Attorney General (SCDAG) Amy Weirich’s office ranks first in Tennessee for prosecutorial misconduct, according to a new report from a Harvard Law School group.
Weirich called the report “grossly inaccurate” and one that paints an “incomplete account of these cases.” But a local criminal justice advocate said the report was enough to call Weirich “one of the most problematic prosecutors in the entire country.”
From 2010 to 2015, the SCDAG office had the highest number of misconduct findings and the most overturned convictions in Tennessee, according to the report from the Fair Punishment Project.
The group “is helping to create a fair and accountable justice system through legal action, public discourse, and educational initiatives,” according to its website. The project is a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute.
Most of the misconduct findings in Shelby County, of which the report says there are more than a dozen, come as Weirch and the attorneys in her office have failed to hand over relevant information to defense attorneys and have made inappropriate statements during trials.
“Leaders set the tone for an organization, and a look into Amy Weirich’s own record of misconduct, illustrates why Memphis cannot shake its misconduct problem,” the report reads.
For this, the report’s authors point mainly to Weirich’s conduct during the murder trial of Noura Jackson, noting that Weirich allegedly hid a statement from a key witness and violated Jackson’s constitutional right to silence in her closing argument.
Weirich faced public discipline last year from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Responsibility for her conduct in the case but the charges against her were dismissed and she was issued a private reprimand.
“[The report] is a grossly inaccurate and incomplete account of these cases as seen through the eyes of a defense advocacy group,” Weirich said in a statement. “I became a prosecutor to hold the guilty accountable and to protect the innocent in every case, and that is what I have tried to do throughout my career. I will never apologize for trying to seek justice for victims of crime.”
Josh Spickler, the executive director with the Memphis-based criminal justice reform group Just City, said the misconduct findings in Weirich’s office were not isolated events or occasional instances of human error but “a pattern of misconduct, ethical violations, and inappropriate behavior.”
“In the six years since DAG Weirich’s appointment to this position, this amounts to more than just an appalling miscarriage of justice,” Spickler said. “Our criminal justice system has experienced significant delays and has spent millions of dollars as a result of this conduct. Victims and their families have been denied justice and the accused have spent years awaiting a fair determination of their guilt.”
The report focused on allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in Tennessee, California, Louisiana, and Missouri. Those states were apparently chosen because of the media buzz surrounding high-profile cases and prosecutors in certain jurisdictions.
In New Orleans, DA Leon Cannizzaro repeatedly hid evidence, issued fake subpoenas and more, the report said. In Orange County, Calif. DA Tony Rackauckas’ office has faced scandals involving a secret jailhouse informant program, the suppression of evidence, and falsified testimony. In Missouri last year, Jennifer Joyce, the then-elected city of St. Louis prosecutor, defended a prosecutor in her office with 25 misconduct allegations, according to the report.
The report said that (adjusted for population) 89 percent of Tennessee counties had fewer findings of misconduct than Shelby County. Also, 94 percent of Tennessee had fewer misconduct-related conviction reversals than Shelby.
For Weirich, the report also pointed to a 2004 capital murder trial in which she called the co-defendants “greed and evil” 21 times in her opening and closing arguments. Weirich’s name calling earned her a rebuke from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals that reminded her that it “is improper for the prosecutor to use epithets to characterize a defendant” and called her argument “unseemly.” One of the two defendants got a new trial thanks to Weirich’s arguments, the report said.
The report also pointed to another 2004 murder case in which a prosecutor and a defense attorney found a manila envelope with a sticky note attached that read “do not show defense” and carried Weirich’s initials. The envelope vanished and in 2014 Weirich claimed she couldn’t recall it.
The report also spotlights the murder case of Andrew Thomas in which Weirich failed to report that a witness had been paid for her testimony. Weirich claimed that the witness was paid in a trial previous to her prosecution of the case.The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction in the case.