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Challenger in Shelby Co.'s D.A. Race Running Against Status Quo

U of M law professor and former Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy says the volume of violent crime makes a case for new leadership in the District Attorney's office.

Q: I want to start with a question that I asked your Republican opponent, Amy Weirich, yesterday. We've seen increased partisanship in even local elections. And in a state where a Republican supermajority is making the laws that your office will have to prosecute, what does that "D" next to your name on the ballot signify to you.

Mulroy: There are stark differences in policy and in priorities between Republican Amy Weirich and Democrat Steve Mulroy. The D next to the name indicates that this is somebody who is in favor of criminal justice reform and is not in favor of the status quo. You know, in the modern era we haven't had a Democratic District Attorney for Shelby County. And I think if voters decide that they want to vote against the status quo, then that "D" next to the name signifies change.

Q: It seems like one of the challenges facing a Democrat running for this job is that liberals talk a lot about police reform and social justice, especially in the past few years. And yet you are facing a public that is getting wearier and wearier of not just violent crime, but of the porch pirates, the vandals, the drag racers on the streets. How do you respond to voters who on Election Day are really just tired of all the crime?

Mulroy: I push back, respectfully, against the premise of the question; you know, the idea that somehow liberals are not in favor of vigorously enforcing crime. Quite the contrary, you know, I was a former federal prosecutor and had no trouble putting people away. I think we need to focus on violent crime, which is out of control, and I think we've lost our focus over the years. But one of the things I'll mention to you, Chris, is violent crime was actually pretty low in the three years before our incumbent took office in 2011, and it's been rising steadily ever since almost every year — both before, during and after the pandemic (I don't think the pandemic is an excuse) to the point now where we're not just number one in the state for violent crime, we're number one in the country per capita for violent crime. So yes, the public is fed up with crime, particularly violent crime, but I think that means that's all the more reason why they should vote for change instead of voting for the incumbent.

Q: I think it's fair to say, though, that some of that increase in crime began when the Tennessee legislature deregulated gun ownership — started allowing guns to be stored in cars. That's when we started to see a real proliferation. Is it possible to pin that rise in crime on a District Attorney?

Mulroy: I mean, there's no question that the state legislature's loosening of restrictions on access to guns has made a bad situation already worse. No question about that. Now, I don't blame any one official for this, right? It's a complex problem. But I do think that the overall trend over the last decade shows that what we've been doing just ain't been working and we need to change.

Q: Abortion rights have become a surprise factor in this race. At some point in the next few years, I don't think it's unrealistic to think Tennessee could start jailing women for having abortions. You've said that you wouldn't make prosecuting abortion cases a priority. How would that work, though, if our state lawmakers expect a District Attorney — and especially one in liberal Memphis — to carry out those laws?

Mulroy: Every District Attorney has broad discretion about what to prioritize and what not to prioritize. It's called prosecutorial discretion. It's part of our constitutional system, and no state legislature can force a prosecutor to prosecute anything. Now, while it's imprudent for any prosecutor to make a blanket statement and say, 'I will never prosecute X' —and I haven't done that — it is entirely possible and appropriate for a District Attorney facing the voters to say what will and will not be a high priority. And I have said, and continue to say, that prosecuting abortions would be an extremely low priority for me. And in this respect, there's a clear choice with the voters between Mrs. Weirich and myself.

Q: Steve, you've been around Memphis politics for years. Why did you decide to run for District Attorney General?

Mulroy: I was recruited. I was happy as a tenured law professor with summers off, but a number of reform-minded attorneys came to me and they said, 'Look, we can't have another eight years of what we've experienced over the last 12."

Q: And if you win this race, what is your first priority?

Stopping our opposition to DNA testing post-conviction, so that we make sure that we don't wrongfully convict people And to establish a conviction review unit to make sure that we haven't wrongfully imprisoned innocent persons. That's just the first thing I would do, but there's a lengthy list of reforms that I discuss on my website, Stevemulroy.com, that I'm hoping will restore public confidence in the fairness of the system so that the public will start cooperating with law enforcement again in a way that they haven't been in recent years. It's that kind of cooperation that will finally, I hope, bend the curve on violent crime in this county, which is out of control.

An interview with Republican incumbent DA Amy Weirich aired previously and can be found at wknofm.org.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.