Meet and get to know Spencer Merriweather
Charlotte Mecklenburg’s District Attorney
with Lynn Wheeler
Spencer, where did you grow up? Do you have special childhood memories you’d like to share? What were your favorite things to do as a kid?
I was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, where I was a fortunate child to have almost all of my special childhood memories involve my parents. I remember my mom staying up late at night with me when I was in elementary school, supervising my composition of book reports for school. Despite my temper tantrums and occasional tears, she wouldn’t allow me to consider my work complete until it passed her strict review. She remains the most uncompromising editor I’ve ever known. I would feel so drained from the whole experience… right up until I turned in my final product and saw the glowingly positive response from my teachers. I remember feeling pride that I’d invested a special amount of effort in my work and had it pay dividends. My mom teaching me “hard work is always worth it” remains my most cherished childhood lesson.
While both my parents were public school educators, my dad had an afterschool job as a Parks and Recreation Director for a town just outside of Mobile. He supervised 17 parks, ball fields, and basketball gyms, most of which were in economically depressed neighborhoods. I was my parents’ only child, but my dad’s parks job gave me access to all of the kids and play opportunities I could hope for on weekends and summer nights. I loved it. Once inside the rec center, my dad allowed me to make my own way with the kids with whom I interacted. I learned how to make fast friends and find common ground and humor with all types of people, but sometimes other lessons came harder. The fact that my dad was an authority figure at the rec center didn’t keep people from testing my mettle. In one instance, I got into a war of words with a kid a foot taller than I was. In the corner of my eye, I could see my dad walk in, so I got bold enough to offer a particularly stinging comment to the bigger kid. He immediately punched so hard in the nose I fell flat on my back. I waited a couple of seconds before getting up, thinking my dad would surely intervene, but he continued to watch silently from only yards away. With no other options, I got up, swung at the kid twice and missed terribly, only to have my dad THEN break up the fight. I’m not sure that was model late 20th century parenting, nor am I sure I was right to respond with my fists, but I’m grateful my dad gave me the latitude to learn some simple street smarts: 1) stand up for myself when circumstances call for it; and 2) thinking I can say uncharitable things to people, just because I have cover, might just earn me a punch in the nose.
You graduated from Princeton as an undergrad. Talk about your experiences there. What were your favorite subjects?
I loved Princeton, and I still do. Admittedly, I chose it because I was looking for exposure—at least for four years—to something wholly different from the place I grew up. Being a short train ride away from New York and Philadelphia opened a whole new world for me, with Broadway, Yankee Stadium, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art all of a sudden right at my front door. On campus, I tried to soak up everything around me, frequently attending lectures from noted authors and world leaders. I fondly remember meeting Julian Bond, Kofi Annan, and Bill Bradley among so many others. But I truly sought to be a citizen of the campus, too. From my freshman year on, I had a job at the library, which allowed me to get to know a lot of people. Having daily facetime with almost every student on campus (at least those who frequented the library) made for pretty easy entry into campus politics, ultimately resulting in my election as Student Body President during my senior year.
Academically, I didn’t especially excel at any one subject, but literature and music classes I took in American Studies and African American Studies still live with me today. There’s not much I see and hear in my life where I don’t see remnants of John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, shades of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, and sounds of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. I Ioved learning about the interconnectedness of the American story…How jazz is connected to bluegrass and how bluegrass is connected to gospel. At Princeton, I was taught to constantly think about ways to nurture “life of the mind,” and to enhance the way we see and hear each other. Learning that makes it worth all these student loans I’ve still got to pay off. (Smile).
Was there a defining moment that led you to consider law as a career and subsequently attend and graduate from UNC Law School? Explain.
Ironically, I think the first time I considered law as a career was when I had to sit in a civil jury trial when I was in the 5th grade. My mom told a judge she couldn’t serve on a jury because she had to pick her child up from school since my dad had to go to his second job. The judge responded by ordering a clerk to pick me up from school and, as a citizenship lesson, to bring me to court to watch my mom serve on the jury. The proceedings in the courtroom seemed fairly compelling at the time, and I remember the jury appearing captivated with the words of the attorneys. Upon reflection, I think it was a breach of contract case, which to a 5th grader, should have been about as interesting as watching paint dry.
Anyway, after taking so many college political science classes where the law figured prominently, and then working on Capitol Hill for a Member of Congress who was a lawyer by training, I knew I wanted to go to law school. I also knew I wanted to get back to the South. Anyone who visits Chapel Hill knows it’s hard not to fall in love with it. But something the law school dean said when I visited really resonated with me: “UNC Law is the best public law school in the country that’s actually proud of being a public law school.” It meant something that the school had special pride that so many of its graduates found their way into places of service throughout the state. I’m proud to count myself among them.
I have met your wife, Lila, and I found her to be kind, caring and delightful. She was in the DA’s office with you for a while. Where did you meet and tell us your proposal story.
Lila is all of those things and more. We met when I started waiting tables and bartending at a restaurant where she worked, when I was in law school and when she was in her senior year at UNC. First, we were friends for a couple of years, but then we finally decided to go out on a proper date. We had some false starts early, but, before long, it was clear we were crazy about one another. Our first few years together weren’t actually “together,” with her in law school at Elon in Greensboro and with me in Charlotte. But, we persisted through the distance.
While Lila was an avid world traveler, I took my first trip out of the U.S. in 2012, when we traveled across Costa Rica together. On the last day of the trip, we found a secluded beach on the Pacific Coast, where we’d planned to do a last day of beach reading. I looked at my surroundings and decided I was never going to find a more perfect setting to ask her to marry me. Demonstrating my failure as a communicator, she asked, “Are you being serious?” I was, and we married two years later.
Do you have a bucket list? And what’s on it?
Lila and I would love to travel to any and all places that will accept our passports, but we hope there’s a journey to South Africa in our future someday. We also have dreams of getting back to our relationship roots in retirement and opening a restaurant/bar together…not a big one, but a neighborhood place where we know our patrons and they know us. We met at a place like that.
What drew you to Charlotte?
I was fortunate enough to get an internship at the DAs office here after my first year in law school. I immediately fell in love with Charlotte. If someone mixed Mobile, where I grew up, New York and DC in a bowl together, they’d come up with Charlotte.. It has so many large city amenities, but it is small enough to feel like you know people.. Within days of my arrival here I knew it was home.
You replaced Andrew Murray as Mecklenburg’s District Attorney ….after serving as Assistant District Attorney….when Andrew was appointed US Attorney. Andrew is one of my good friends and he couldn’t speak more highly of you and your capabilities as an ADA when he was serving as Mecklenburg’s DA. So far what have been your greatest challenges after taking office?
Among the greatest challenges for the DA’s Office has been the loss of some senior leadership in our ranks. With the retirement of longtime Deputy District Attorney Bart Menser, the departure of Homicide Team Chief Bill Stetzer (now Andrew’s First Assistant at the US Attorney’s Office), and the loss of a couple of other senior prosecutors, we lost over 80 years of experience in December 2017 alone. As a result, personnel reorganization has been an immediate priority. But this has allowed us to promote some dynamic, talented, and forward-thinking young prosecutors into leadership positions. With new faces in leadership, we’re tackling challenges with fresh perspective and new energy. Despite considerable transition in just under two months, frankly, we haven’t missed a beat.
Homicides in Mecklenburg County were up a whopping 27% in 2017 and there have been more homicides in 2018 and it’s just January. This has been very disturbing for most people. Do you think there is a fix to mitigating this proliferation of homicides and overall violence in Charlotte? What would you suggest…..if you had magic powers and could implement those solutions immediately….?
These numbers should be disturbing for everyone. While there’s no quick fix to stop violence, we have already begun to reallocate resources to help stem the tide of violent crime in our neighborhoods. First, a healthy proportion of those homicides involved defendants who were felons who should not have had a gun in the first place. We’ll be dedicating more time to taking felon firearm possession cases to trial. Second, we’ve created two new prosecution teams to put an increased emphasis on crimes of violence. Our new Violent Crimes Team will allow us to step up our efforts to against offenders who commit robberies, shootings, and felony assaults. Those crimes threaten our sense of safety and security in our neighborhoods. Our Special Victims Team will focus on domestic, sexual, and child violence, recognizing victims of those crimes have withstood extraordinary level of trauma that requires specialized support from our office. Last year, intimate partner homicides accounted for a quarter of Charlotte’s homicides. If we can empower victims at the first sign of violence they experience and hold their assailants accountable before violence escalates, we can prevent homicides.
With that in mind, if I had a magic wand, I’d build a Family Justice Center for Mecklenburg County…tomorrow. That center would do what they’ve done with great success, not only in Milwaukee, San Diego, and the Bronx, but also in Asheville, Greensboro, and Henderson County: offer a space where service providers, legal advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors, health professionals, and others collaborate to form a trauma-informed community for survivors of family and sexual violence and their children. When victims are empowered in this way, they have the kind of successful engagement in the criminal justice system that enables us to hold offenders accountable early and, ultimately, prevent homicides.
Meet baby Spencer Merriweather and his Mom and Dad
Oh my goodness. Look at this adorable tyke with his Mother and then his father. I was thinking….When Spencer’s parents were playing with him in theses photos, did they have any notion Spencer would one day graduate from Princeton University and UNC Law School and move on to become the District Attorney of the largest city and county in North Carolina? As a Mother myself, I know he blew their socks off with his intellect and accomplishments.
District Attorney Spencer Merriweather Bio
Spencer B. Merriweather III, a career prosecutor with more than a decade of experience, was sworn into office as District Attorney on November 27, 2017. He was appointed by N.C. Governor Roy Cooper to serve after the previous District Attorney vacated the seat to become U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
Before becoming Mecklenburg County’s chief prosecutor, DA Merriweather served as an Assistant District Attorney in a variety of roles at the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office. He sought justice for victims’ families as a homicide prosecutor. He supervised the Habitual Felon Team, and he served as a senior sexual assault prosecutor. Over the course of his career, he prosecuted an array of other crimes, including robberies, drug trafficking and domestic violence. For a full year, he was the assigned prosecutor in Drug Treatment Court, where he helped offenders confront addiction.
DA Merriweather has long been an active member of the Mecklenburg County Bar. He is a former Chair of the Bar’s Criminal Justice Section, and he is the incoming President of the Mecklenburg Bar Foundation Board. He also serves as a Board Member for Safe Alliance, a local nonprofit dedicated to serving survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. For the past five years, DA Merriweather has been engaged in Charlotte’s Community Building Initiative, which seeks to promote equity and inclusion among both public and private community stakeholders. He is an active member of the National Association of Black Prosecutors.
DA Merriweather earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2005 and received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University.
DA Merriweather and his wife live in Charlotte. He is a member of St. Peter Catholic Church, where he teaches Confirmation class to eighth and ninth graders.