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Steve Mulroy was sitting in a meeting with his transition team when he received a text with a link to a news article. It was his first full day as Shelby County’s newly sworn-in district attorney, and he said he was still coming off what he described as a high from delivering “the best-received speech” of his career.
The text had a link to a news article about the abduction of a Memphis kindergarten teacher who was out for her regular morning run. It was, essentially, day one in office for Mulroy, and a citywide manhunt for Eliza Fletcher was underway.
“I remember somebody interrupted the transition meeting with texts, news about what had happened,” Mulroy told The Commercial Appeal in a recent interview. “This was a relatively prominent citizen, so it was definitely going to get attention. But I had no idea what I was in store for.”
The search for Fletcher, and the man accused of abducting and killing her, went on for several days. The case drew the national spotlight to Memphis and brought international intrigue, as well.
“Obviously, at that time, I was still hoping that Eliza would be brought back alive,” he said. “That was why there was such an intense focus. ‘Can we find this person? Can we save them? Can we find them in time?’”
Mulroy had been in office for less than a week when Cleotha Abston-Henderson was arrested and charged with Fletcher’s kidnapping and murder. One of the assistant district attorneys in the office, who has since been promoted to Mulroy’s second-in-command as deputy district attorney, reassured the DA that cases like this were not the norm.
“[Deputy District Attorney Paul Hagerman], who at the time I did not know was going to be my new number two, told me, ‘This is a once-in-a-decade case…You’re not going to see anything like this for a long time,'” Mulroy said.
Three days later, a man drove around Memphis firing a gun at random. Some parts of the spree were live-streamed. Memphians were told via emergency texts to shelter in place and not leave home unless it was absolutely necessary.
“I was getting ready to leave the office when I started hearing about what was going on, and I decided to go over to the [Memphis Police Department] command center and watch it all as it was happening,” Mulroy said. “City on lockdown, multiple random shootings. Again, national attention focused on Memphis for the wrong reasons.
“That was my first week in office.”
After a court proceeding following the spree, The Commercial Appeal asked Mulroy to reflect on his first week in office. Mulroy jokingly asked if it was too late for a recount.
But that first week, he said about year later, made him “ready for anything” the job would throw at him over the next 11 months, from a December filled with police shootings to the Tyre Nichols case.
‘A matter of personal conscience’
Both Abston-Henderson and the man arrested and charged for the spree shooting, Ezekiel Kelly, now face the death penalty ― something Mulroy has openly said he opposes as a policy matter but has to enforce as a district attorney.
“I think a DA has to understand their proper role,” he said in that recent interview. “I’m not a state legislator. If I were a state legislator, I would vote to abolish the death penalty. I am the DA, and that means I need to follow the law. I still get to exercise discretion, and it will be the very rare case, indeed, that I would ever seek the death penalty, and I think the system designed it to be so. The death penalty is supposed to be, as the famous phrase goes ‘for the worst of the worst.’ It is a rare, last-resort remedy to be used only in the most egregious cases.”
Mulroy was criticized by some of the people who were in his corner during the campaign trail for the decision, but he said he stands by the choice to seek the death penalty in the Abston-Henderson and Kelly cases.
Although, he added that seeking the death penalty weighs on a person.
“It’s very difficult,” Mulroy said of having to make the decision. “It’s a matter of personal conscience, and trying to balance your own, personal feelings against what you think the requirements of duty are. It’s never an easy decision. I imagine it’s not an easy decision even for those DAs who support the death penalty. It’s even harder for someone like me.”
Mulroy proud of improved transparency, says there’s more work to do
Along the campaign trail, and in a speech delivered after completing his first 100 days in office, Mulroy touted the promise of creating “the most transparent DA’s office in history.”
After one year in office, Mulroy said he has gotten there, but that there is still work to do.
“I think I can easily say that I’ve made this DA’s office the most transparent in Shelby County’s history,” he said. “There is still more to do ― we’re only one year in ― this is a work in progress.”
Mulroy pointed to his weekly newsletters, near biweekly press conferences and bimonthly town halls as evidence of the office’s growing transparency. He credits his chief of communications, Erica Williams, for responding quickly to both media inquiries and the average Memphian.
The office has also made moves to provide an easily accessible public database for Memphians to view court data and has hired its first-ever data officer, Vishant Shah, to oversee the task.
But an area the DA had promised increased transparency and has not fully caught up on is releasing body camera footage from police shootings.
Though MPD rapidly released footage from the scene where officers beat 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, who later died, and a portion of footage from a Shelby County Sheriff’s deputy shooting that left 21-year-old Jarveon Hudspeth dead, the office has not yet released footage from the slew of police shootings that happened in the last five weeks of 2022.
A new practice adopted by the office, which allowed for the release of the Hudspeth footage, could start to catch the office back up in its hunt for transparency.
According to Mulroy, he has the discretion to release footage from fatal police shootings. So long as releasing the footage does not compromise an investigation or litigation, his office will release “key portions” of video from these shootings. That footage has historically been collected by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation when the DA calls for them to investigate an officer-involved shooting.
The next batch of footage his office is working on will be the case for 20-year-old Jaylin McKenzie, which he said will be released “in the near future.”
“It was the case that TBI would take 10 months or more to finish the investigation,” Mulroy said. “The office wouldn’t start our review until after that happened, and then if there was a decision to decline prosecution, that’s when the process of redaction would start. It would be hours and hours of footage, so you’re taking a really long time to get that video out. I think the Tyre Nichols situation sort of woke me up to that our system isn’t the right system. If we could do this for Tyre Nichols, we should be doing it for a lot of other cases.”
Mulroy added that the process could be more streamlined since it has just recently been put in place, but that the biggest room for improvement will come once the DA’s office clears the backlog of three of the five police shootings from 2022 that he says it has the jurisdiction to release footage in.
The other two fatal police shootings include a Dec. 9 shooting that killed 40-year-old Latoris Taylor and a Dec. 5 39-year-old James West Jr., both of which were from Memphis police officers.
Tyre Nichols ‘re-sensitized’ the DA’s office
About five months after taking office, Mulroy would have media worldwide focused on Memphis again. With about 5% of his term served, he had been at the top of the county’s criminal justice system for three high-profile cases.
Within three weeks of Nichols’ beating and subsequent death, the DA’s office had obtained grand jury indictments for five officers and MPD was preparing to release footage of the incident.
Mulroy believes his staff has made the right calls during that process ― citing civil rights attorney Ben Crump’s own words that Memphis laid out the “blueprint” for the rest of the nation. He said he would not change anything the staff did if he had a second attempt.
“We were hitting fastballs as quickly as they came in,” he said. “I wasn’t in any way prepared for it. We were, as they say, building the airplane as you’re flying it and all that. But it has all worked out, and I thought we handled it pretty well. That’s a great tribute to my staff.”
Nichols’ beating and death, Mulroy said, did refocus the office’s awareness of the force used by law enforcement when trying to detain people.
“I think it’s made us all sensitive to the very real problem of excessive force by law enforcement,” he said. “We all knew about it intellectually, but I think it’s re-sensitized us to it. Like I’ve said many times, the vast majority of police officers are people of good faith. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues of culture and accountability that are systemic ― and it’s not just a couple of bad apples. The Tyre Nichols case re-sensitized us to that reality. It isn’t just a few bad apples. We need to treat all of these cases with care and healthy skepticism.”
The DA’s office took a look at each of the cases worked by the five officers facing criminal charges related to Nichols’ death. In total, about 100 cases were reviewed, about 40% were dismissed, 10% had their charges lowered and 3 or 4 were referred to the U.S. Attorney General for the Western District of Tennessee for excessive force concerns.
More changes in the coming years
One of Mulroy’s first acts after the Abston-Henderson and Kelly cases began to make their way through the court system was to establish the Justice Review Unit. The unit was based on Davidson County’s Conviction Review Unit, but takes a wider scope.
The two-person unit, headed by Unit Chief Lorna McClusky and Assistant Chief Robert Gowen, was initially set to review convictions and sentencings. Eventually, the duo was also tasked with reviewing all police shootings for potential criminality, since the unit operates almost completely independently of the other prosecutors.
“I think the existence of the JRU, and the priority I give it, sends a message to the staff that we’re taking this stuff seriously,” Mulroy said. “We should not only not cross the ethical line, we shouldn’t even come close to the ethical line. We should be bending over backwards to make sure that our conduct is above reproach.”
The JRU was part of Mulroy’s campaign, where he cited reports that the Shelby County DA’s Office previously had a record number of cases and convictions overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct.
“I want to erase that stain,” he said. “I have repeatedly said to the staff that if they make a settlement that later, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, can be criticized, I’ll have their back. But if we find out later on that there was a Brady violation or any other kind of ethical misconduct, I won’t have their back.”
A Brady violation happens when prosecutors do not disclose specific evidence to a defense team ― which can be especially egregious when that evidence is favorable to a defendant.
But there are things Mulroy said he wished he could have accomplished throughout this first year in office, that he said will take place over the next seven years of his first term.
Among those, he said he wished the JRU was not so busy with police shootings.
“The JRU has been so consumed with the officer-involved fatality investigations that they haven’t really had a chance to make as much progress on the main work of the JRU like investigating wrongful convictions and wrongful sentences,” he said.
He also pointed to the promise of shifting the focus of the Economic Crimes Unit towards white-collar crime, which has not fully presented itself yet.
“I talked a lot about having our Economic Crimes Unit move away from prioritizing prosecuting poor people for writing bad checks and to focus on bigger, systemic issues like worker exploitation, wage theft and job misclassification,” Mulroy said. “We’re making progress, but I had hoped to have been further along at this point.”
Ever present in that figurative to-do list is lowering the crime rate, which has risen each year since 2015, to the point Mulroy has called it a “crime crisis.” The DA’s office hosted a summit that featured leaders from law enforcement along with local and state politicians Aug. 31, away from cameras and microphones.
Though it is not clear what plans exactly were discussed, Mulroy gave an outline of what the focus would be for the years to come.
But the answer to the crime question is complex, and does not take shape in a day, he said.
“This won’t take effect overnight,” Mulroy said. “But I do think, over the mid-term, that we’re hoping that will have an effect. There’s a phenomenon called ‘return to the mean,’ a sort of what goes up must come down thing. Eventually, when you have long spikes like this, they eventually go down. Now, we’re hoping that curve will flatten sooner because of our efforts. But I think all the officials ― federal, state and local ― that deal with Shelby County are aware that it’s a crisis and it’s time for an all-hands-on-deck approach. I’m cautiously optimistic that, working together, we can bend that curve, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Lucas Finton is a criminal justice reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Inside Steve Mulroy’s first year as Shelby County District Attorney