Hand in hand with his mother, 3-year-old Spencer Merriweather marched in protest of the brutal lynching of Michael Donald, in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
“The Klan picked him up in the middle of the night,” Merriweather said. “They beat him terribly and hung from a tree in a neighborhood not far from where I’m from.”
A friend of Merriweather’s mother was a prominent attorney in the case Donald v. United Klans of America, that resulted in civil remedies and in the bankruptcy of the United Klans of America, which was known as one of the largest and most violent factions of the KKK.
“That was the first inkling that I had about, ‘Wow, this is what lawyers do,’” Merriweather said.
Since his first act of political activism, Merriweather has dedicated his career to public service. As District Attorney for North Carolina’s largest prosecutorial district, Mecklenburg County, Merriweather has focused on prosecuting violent offenses, supporting victims, and creating a safer community.
Merriweather grew up with a passion for public service, and political activism instilled in him. Both of his parents worked as public school educators in Mobile, and his father was also a Parks and Recreation director, showing Merriweather firsthand the importance of service.
“My parents, carry a lot of history with them too, they were black people in the state of Alabama who were among the first in a generation of African Americans to attend college in both of their families,” Merriweather said. “My dad arrived at Alabama State University in Montgomery in time to boycott buses, and my mother was among the first African American educators to teach in what had formerly been a predominantly white high school.”
After high school, Merriweather went on to attend Princeton University, graduating in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in politics. He then attended University of North Carolina and graduated with his J.D. in 2005.
After finishing law school, Merriweather began his career as a legislative associate in the Office of Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the U.S. House of Representatives. He became assistant district attorney in Mecklenburg County in 2007, where he worked as a felony trial attorney, prosecuting homicide, sexual assault, domestic violence, and drug crimes.
Merriweather has served as the district attorney since 2017 after being appointed by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. He was sworn in for his second full term in January 2023. Since stepping into the role of DA, Merriweather has implemented several programs to confront crime in the community, create accessible resources for victims, and reform the justice system.
“When I got to this office, and I saw the wide spectrum of people that I would engage with and the wide spectrum of issues that one had to confront on a daily basis, it reminded me of what I saw through my dad’s eyes and what I saw through my mother’s eyes,” Merriweather said. “I could use the skills that I had and the knowledge that I gained in law school, and I could employ the sense of advocacy that I saw from my boss on Capitol Hill, Congressman Norton, but I was still dealing with, ‘real people,’ and that that was something that greatly appealed to me and quite frankly, still does.”
During his time prosecuting sexual assault and domestic violence, Merriweather noticed ways in which the justice system was failing women and children. He recognized the importance of prosecuting sexual violence and the necessity of creating a culture where women feel empowered to report these crimes.
“You see [the victim] for just one moment, be able to reclaim a reclaim this power that was taken from them at their most vulnerable moment,” Merriweather said. “I have never worried about whether or not I was making an impact in my job. I knew by bringing those sorts of things to light and aiding a survivor, or a family, or others in reclaiming that kind of strength, that that was important.”
While passionate about prosecuting domestic and sexual violence, Merriweather wanted to create a system where victims are nurtured and protected, rather than retraumatized by the court system. To address this, he created a Special Victims Team, made up of attorneys dedicated to prosecuting these crimes using trauma-informed practices. This team relies on alternative evidence to prove guilt, so the plaintiff is not forced to testify in court.
In effort to protect women and children in Mecklenburg County, Merriweather has established multiple facilities aimed at providing care and support to vulnerable victims, including the Survivor Resource Center, the Family Justice Center, and the Umbrella Center, that provide accessible comfort and protection to survivors and their families.
“A common model in the absence of a Family Justice Center, or in the absence of a Survivor Resource Center, you have to go five different places, get on the phone with five different people, and fill out 12 different forms,” Merriweather said. “Each one of those different phone calls, forms and visits are a place where a survivor might decide, ‘You know what, it’s not worth it, it’s not that big of a deal.’ By making those services available in one place, it increases public safety as a whole. It strengthens and empowers that survivor and makes it more likely that they’re going to be in a place of protection and comfort, which enables us to hold abusers accountable in the way that’s necessary.”
While providing immediate care for victims and families through the use of advocates, counselors, health professionals, and law enforcement, these programs also seek to end the cycle of domestic and sexual violence.
“It is common for people who have been exposed to trauma at an early age, and who have seen patterns of inner interpersonal violence repeated over and over again, to thinks it’s okay,” Merriweather said. “The Family Justice Center allows an opportunity for us to interrupt that cycle.”
Another program that Merriweather has initiated is Second Chances, a strategy for drug prosecution that provides those who suffer from addiction to receive treatment through Mecklenburg County drug recovery courts. Merriweather has advocated for a program that acts as a vehicle to recovery rather than incarceration.
“I want to be able to go to members of my community and say, ‘We’re using the limited resources that we have wisely, we are thoughtful and intentional about how we’re prioritizing cases within our office, and we also understand that a lot of the people that are interacting with us are sick.’”
It is important to Merriweather that addiction is recognized as the complex issue it is, and when faced with simple possession cases, courts can aid users on their way toward recovery, rather than furthering the cycle of incarceration.
“Justice, true justice is not encapsulated by the number of guilty verdicts that you hear,” Merriweather said. “It’s encapsulated by whether or not the right thing was done.”
Merriweather has been recognized as a leader in justice reform efforts, offering alternatives to prosecution, opening the door to conversations about the reinvention of the bail system, and presenting new training to combat racial bias.
“When people talk about me being reformed minded, I take that as a compliment,” Merriweather said. “I’m always willing to look and listen and think about something in a different way. There are some things that I think the stability the system requires me to not change, and there’s some things that I think we can take a fresh look at.”
It was important to Merriweather to ensure that people in his office are especially thoughtful on issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity. He has initiated the creation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Team, as well as created a mandatory curriculum for all attorneys and staff members in his office.
“This is meant not to indoctrinate, it’s meant to raise questions,” Merriweather said. “If you’re in the role of making the kind of decisions that our folks are making or engaging with the public in the way that we are, I’m not trying to get you to believe anything, I’m trying to get you to take a beat and just think.”
As the first Black District Attorney in Mecklenburg County, Merriweather feels that he has a unique opportunity to instill confidence in the people in his community.
“People just want to know, and they want to see that you’re being fair,” Merriweather said. “They want to know that justice is not dictated by what someone looks like, or what zip code they live in, or how much money they have in their pocket.”
Throughout Merriweather’s second term, he hopes to restore resident’s confidence in justice system, shortening the wait of cases, applying trauma informed principles, and confronting juvenile violence in the community.
He will continue advocating for justice and serving the public, just as he always has.
To hear more from Merriweather, check out the Q&A below.
Q: What are your plans following your second term as Mecklenburg County District Attorney?
A: As a wise former judge I knew once said, “I don’t ever buy green fruit.”
Q: What are some of the key things you learned as Assistant District Attorney that prepared you to step into the role of District Attorney?
A: (1) It’s hard to talk about something you haven’t seen. (2) Create the time and space to empathize with others.
Q: What is your favorite “hidden gem” in Charlotte?
A: There’re a lot of them. My dad was a Parks and Rec Director, so I’m constantly amazed by how easy it is to lose yourself in our county’s beautiful park system. Trails, greenways, picnic areas, there are so many places to find a sense of peace.
Q: What is your favorite book?
A: This answer changes every couple of years. I’m partial to nonfiction. “Parting The Waters,” by Taylor Branch is the one I keep coming back to. “Wilmington’s Lie,” by David Zucchino and “Getting Something to Eat in Jackson,” by Joseph C. Ewoodzie, Jr. are the ones I talk to other people about most frequently in the last couple of years.
Q: Who are a few of the most influential people in your life?
A: Here’s where I get a little hokey. My parents made me. My wife sustains me. My little girl gives me hope. The people in my life who have taken the time to teach me something (which includes each of the people I’ve already mentioned) are the ones I cherish more that I have words to express to them.
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received?
A: People will forgive a bad call. They won’t forgive bad faith.
Q: Outside of the office, how do you like to spend your time?
A: When I can find the time, I look to cook, and I’m especially partial to baking. It’s something where you can lose yourself in the precision and balance of the tasks. Also, it can draw the physical presence of my wife and child, which is a great bonus.