Who is behind the moving billboard criticizing Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich?
For eight hours Wednesday, a mobile billboard circled the criminal justice building at 201 Poplar Ave., bright lights criticizing Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich.
“A Harvard Law School project ranked Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich highest in Tennessee for prosecutorial misconduct,” the billboard read.
The billboard directs viewers to a website that includes a variety of anecdotes about Weirich and prosecutors in her office, including withholding evidence and making inflammatory remarks during the Noura Jackson trial, the appearance of an envelope saying “do not show defense” in the Vern Braswell case and how she opposed DNA testing for Pervis Payne.
“Amy Weirich is one of the worst prosecutors in the country, and her record of misconduct is infamous,” said Alex Bassos, senior adviser for the newly launched group Memphis Watch, in a written statement.
“Prosecutors tend to avoid scrutiny so it's genuinely hard to be called out on your bad behavior by your state supreme court, a federal appellate court, the Commercial Appeal, the New York Times, and Harvard Law School, but Amy Weirich managed to do it. That's the wrong kind of notoriety, and Memphis deserves better, so we decided to run a billboard campaign outside of the courthouse and Amy's office so that everyday people in Memphis can see the toxic record for themselves.”
Bassos declined a request to be interviewed. Not much is available online about the group behind the billboard, but Bassos, who appears to be from Portland, Oregon, is a former public defender who used to work at The Justice Collaborative and currently works for the Justice Research Group, according to his Twitter and LinkedIn biographies.
In a written statement, Weirich said this has been a tragic month in Memphis and “we all are outraged by the level of violence that has been seen the past few weeks.”
“It is my role as prosecutor to hold accountable those who threaten the safety of our citizens,” Weirich said. “The answer to violent crime is not letting more violent criminals out of jail, as some of my critics are pushing to do. I’m going to continue fighting to protect the victims of crime and I won’t be intimidated or back down from my job.”
Drawing attention to the district attorney's race next year
Bassos worked with Memphians to create the anti-Weirich campaign, said Josh Spickler, who assisted. Spickler has been a longtime critic of Weirich.
“I think these are people who care about prosecutorial integrity and I care about prosecutorial integrity. It’s not an issue most communities have to talk about very much but because these DA terms are so long, Amy Weirich has been in this current term for seven years now and a lot of these things that are featured on that billboard are vital for the community to understand when we vote in the district attorney’s race next year,” Spickler said. “It’s been a couple of years since some of these things were in the public eye and this was a way to bring some of these things back to the forefront.”
He doesn’t know how much money Bassos and the Justice Research Group, which doesn’t appear to have an online presence, are spending on the billboard or where else they spend money, Spickler said.
Spickler described Bassos as a former public defender and an advocate for fairness.
“I think Alex and the folks he works with are interested in district attorney’s races in lots of places,” Spickler said. “Lots of people who are interested in criminal justice reform understand the district attorney is the single most important person in the system so this is their way of influencing and educating about that. People nationally see Amy Weirich as a prosecutor we need to replace.”
Weirich is running for reelection in 2022. Originally appointed by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in January of 2011, she was then elected on Aug. 3, 2012. She was reelected to a full eight-year term on Aug. 7, 2014.
Spickler said more public awareness and actions opposing Weirich are likely from Memphis Watch and other organizations.
Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected], 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.