MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The contentious race for the job of top prosecutor in Tennessee’s most populous county ends Thursday, when voters decide between the current Republican district attorney and a Democratic challenger in a contest that's gained some national attention as the two clash on a new state sentencing law and prosecuting abortion providers.
Voters will also cast votes for governor, Congress and state legislative seats in Thursday’s primary. But in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, a city that has struggled with violent crime for years, the race between incumbent District Attorney Amy Weirich and opponent Steve Mulroy has taken center stage.
Weirich has been a prosecutor for more than 30 years and is seeking a second eight-year term. Mulroy is a civil rights lawyer and former federal prosecutor who also has served as a Shelby County commissioner.
The candidates have different approaches to criminal justice issues. One of those is Tennessee’s new “truth in sentencing” law, which requires serving entire sentences for various felonies, including attempted first-degree murder, vehicular homicide resulting from the driver’s intoxication and carjacking. Twelve other offenses would require inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee signaled his unease with the bill by allowing it to go into law without his signature — sparking a swift rebuke from top GOP legislative leaders.
Weirich supports the law, arguing that it helps ensure justice for victims of violent crimes and makes those who break the law more accountable.
The new law is the “best tool that we've ever been given to fight violent crime," she said. “For too many years, our state sentencing laws were out of whack with what the victims of crime want and with what the communities want. Passage of this legislation finally addresses that, and it says ‘victims of crime matter.’”
Mulroy says the law does not reduce crime or provide incentives for incarcerated people to rehabilitate and earn credit for work done in prison. The law drives up Tennessee's prison budget, funds that could be better spent on youth intervention and community reentry programs, he says.
“She is convinced that we will be able to incarcerate ourselves out of this problem, and she thinks the solution is evermore incarceration,” Mulroy said.
Weirich touts a program that uses a panel of community members to hear low-level cases and hold offenders accountable without sending them to jail. Mulroy contends that program is just “window dressing.”
The candidates also have different stances on Tennessee's pending abortion “trigger law."
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the nearly half-century-old Roe v. Wade ruling, which found that the right to abortion was protected by the U.S. Constitution. The latest decision allows states to establish individual abortion laws.
A federal court already has allowed Tennessee's law, which bans abortion as early as six weeks, to take effect. A trigger law that could take effect later this month would essentially ban all abortions statewide, except in cases when the procedure is necessary to prevent the pregnant person's death or serious impairment "of a major bodily function.”
The trigger law would make performing an abortion a felony and subject doctors to up to 15 years in prison.
Mulroy says the criminal justice system is not the appropriate forum to “handle reproductive choice matters” and abortion prosecutions would be an “extremely low priority” for him if he was elected.
Weirich has not said outright whether she will or won’t prosecute doctors who perform abortions. She said it would be a violation of Tennessee code for her office “to issue a broad and hypothetical statement without an actual charge or case."
“We have to have the facts and circumstances in front of us,” Weirich said. “It's reckless and careless for a DA or a candidate for DA to make those statements.”
Mulroy has received endorsements from national figures, including musician John Legend, rapper Common, Innocence Project attorney Barry Scheck and relatives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Weirich has been endorsed by local police associations and by Deborah Marion, the mother of former NBA player Lorenzen Wright. Prosecutors serving under Weirich secured a guilty plea from Wright's ex-wife and the murder conviction of a co-conspirator in Wright's 2010 slaying in Memphis.