MEMPHIS, Tennessee (AP) — A Democratic attorney who vowed to make abortion prosecution under Tennessee’s “trigger law” an extremely low priority in the county that Memphis is a part of has defeated the incumbent Republican prosecutor who declined to say whether she’s would go after doctors performing the procedure.
Steve Mulroy scored a decisive victory over Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich in Thursday’s election after a controversial race of clashes over abortion prosecutions and a new state law requiring strict penalties for violent crimes and other issues.
Mulroy takes office on 1 September. He said his top priority is consulting staff to develop strategies to fight violent crime, which is a persistent problem in Memphis.
“I look forward to getting to know the people in the district attorney’s office, both the executive and the line attorneys,” he said Friday.
Weirich, a longtime prosecutor, has been the county attorney for Shelby County since 2011. She oversaw successful prosecutions in high-profile cases such as the murder of NBA player Lorenzen Wright and developed a program that uses a panel of community members to hold low-level offenders accountable without sending them to jail.
Weirich was also the center of criticism. She came under fire for the prosecution of Black Lives Matter activist Pamela Moses, who was accused of trying to register to vote illegally. Moses, who had previously committed crimes, was sentenced to six years in prison. At the time, lawyers said the punishment was excessive.
In February, a judge overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial after it was found that the Tennessee Department of Correction had failed to hand over a necessary document in the case. Weirich decided not to pursue a second trial “in the interest of the legal economy,” she said at the time.
Weirich also accepted a personal reprimand for her actions as lead prosecutor in the 2009 trial of Noura Jackson, who was convicted of fatally stabbing her mother more than 50 times.
Weirich had faced a recommendation of public censure on charges that she had not submitted an important witness statement to the defense until after the trial and that she had made inappropriate comments about Jackson’s right to remain silent.
Jackson was eventually released from prison after entering an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to avoid pleading guilty, but acknowledge that there is enough evidence to convict.
Mulroy, a law professor, civil rights attorney and former federal prosecutor, and Weirich argued over Tennessee’s new “truth in conviction” law, which requires serving full sentences for several crimes, including attempted first-degree murder, murder on vehicles due to driver intoxication and carjacking.
In an interview with Associated Press, Weirich said the law helps ensure justice for victims of violent crime and makes those who break the law more accountable.
In a separate AP interview, Mulroy said the law does not reduce crime or provide incentives for inmates to rehabilitate and earn credit for prison work. The law is boosting Tennessee’s prison populations and budgets, using funds better spent on youth intervention and community return programs, he said.
The candidates also fought over Tennessee’s pending abortion law, which could go into effect later this month.
Tennessee’s trigger law would essentially ban all abortions statewide, except in cases where the procedure is necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant person or serious impairment of “an important bodily function.”
The law would make performing an abortion a crime and subject doctors to 15 years in prison if convicted.
In the AP interview, Mulroy said the criminal justice system is not the right forum to “handle reproductive choice cases” and that prosecuting abortion would be an “extremely low priority” for him.
Weirich never said outright whether or not she would prosecute doctors who perform abortions. She said it would be a violation of the Tennessee Code for her office “to issue a broad and hypothetical statement without an actual charge or case.”
The DA contest is an example of abortion becoming a problem in subtitled races, including fights for the state attorney general. Democrats in Arizona, California, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio and elsewhere are picturing themselves as backstops against potentially more restrictions on abortion rights, while many Republicans want to win or retain seats as their state’s top attorneys pledge to support tougher laws .
Weirich told supporters Thursday evening that she would continue to fight for crime victims and “it was a great honor to serve.”
Associated Press reporter Julie Smyth contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.