Trials on Trial 

Shelby County District Attorney General’s office again targeted for misconduct.

Shelby County District Attorney General (SCDAG) Amy Weirich came under fire twice last week: first in a new report that ranked her office first in Tennessee for misconduct and second, according to sources, for a new state investigation into her conduct during a 2005 trial.

The Fair Punishment Project, a joint initiative of Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, issued the report last week. In Weirich's office from 2010 to 2015, the study cited more than a dozen instances of misconduct and found the most overturned convictions in Tennessee.

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.

Weirich called the report "grossly inaccurate" and one that paints an "incomplete account of these cases." But Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, said the report was enough to call Weirich "one of the most problematic prosecutors in the entire country."

click to enlarge Amy Weirich
  • Amy Weirich

"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.

But Weirich said the study looks at the cases through the "eyes of a defense advocacy group."

"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," Weirich said. "I will never apologize for trying to seek justice for victims of crime."

Spickler said the findings show "a pattern of misconduct, ethical violations, and inappropriate behavior."

"Our criminal justice system has experienced significant delays and has spent millions of dollars as a result of this conduct," he said. "Victims and their families have been denied justice, and the accused have spent years awaiting a fair determination of their guilt."

Sources connected to Vern Braswell, who was convicted for the murder of his wife in 2005, said the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility (TBPR), the arm of the Tennessee Supreme Court that oversees attorney conduct in the state, has launched a new investigation into Weirich and her office on allegations of misconduct in his 2005 trial.

Braswell's family filed a complaint with the TBPR in May and the new investigation was opened by the TBPR last month, those sources said. An official with the TBPR could not confirm whether an investigation had been initiated or give any other details.

The complaint notes that the TBPR got involved in the cases of Noura Jackson and Michael Rimmer, both of whom are white. Braswell is African American.

"We hope and pray that Vern's skin color does not stand as a bar to these matters being fully investigated from an unbiased perspective," reads the complaint.

At the center of the new complaint is a sealed, manila envelope with a sticky note attached that read something close to "do not show to the defense" and Weirich's initials, according to court testimony. Hiding evidence that could help a defendant's case in court is illegal.

However, Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan said (in a 2016 note denying a new trial for Braswell) that the envelope did not hinder Braswell's attorneys from presenting a defense. Also, Skahan said the state was not obligated to hand over the documents in the first place because they would have hurt Braswell's case, not helped it.

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