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VOL. 125 | NO. 244 | Thursday, December 16, 2010

Weirich Preps for Role as County’s Top Prosecutor

By Bill Dries

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Amy Weirich wasted no time and used few words the day her appointment as District Attorney General was announced.

Asked if she would run for the office in the 2012 elections, she immediately responded, “I will.”

With that statement, a career prosecutor who has worked death penalty cases and numerous first-degree murder cases enters a new world of administration and politics without leaving the other world behind.

Weirich takes the post Jan. 15, the day outgoing District Attorney General Bill Gibbons becomes commissioner of public safety and homeland security for the state of Tennessee.

She said she hopes to serve in “somewhat the same capacity but a little different now.”

District attorneys general are administrators, and in Shelby County have not typically tried cases or made courtroom appearances for decades.

Weirich is the first woman to hold the job of district attorney general in Shelby County. She is the fourth woman to be a DA in the state.

Weirich is new to politics but not to the office of the chief state prosecutor in Shelby County.

She began her career as a prosecutor in 1991, five years before Gibbons became DA.

Weirich asked for patience in the coming transition, while Gibbons said Weirich has his confidence.

“She is a tough prosecutor. She is a fair prosecutor. She is smart,” he said. “She is hard-working and she is going to do a great job.”

Weirich was appointed to the office’s No. 2 position just months ago. Before that she was chief prosecutor of the gang and narcotics prosecution unit. And she came to that position from being a division leader who specialized in “major violators.”

Gibbons was tapped for his cabinet post by Gov.-elect Bill Haslam. Weirich is the first local office appointment Haslam has made. Under the Tennessee Constitution, the governor fills a vacancy in the district attorney’s position.

The scenario is the same one that made Gibbons DA in 1996 when John Pierotti retired.

Gov. Don Sundquist appointed Gibbons, who was in private law practice after having served on the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission and running for Memphis mayor in 1987.

Gibbons’ current eight-year term of office runs to Sept. 1, 2014. Weirich’s appointment lasts until county elections in 2012, at which time she and other candidates will be seeking the last two years in the term.

Both decisions by Haslam represent a change in the office of 108 attorneys, about two-thirds of them personally picked and hired by Gibbons.

Gibbons describes the office as “the largest group of attorneys in the entire state devoted to coming to work every day to represent the public’s interest.”

Under his leadership, the office has switched to a “vertical prosecution system” for violent offenses.

The approach teams the same set of prosecutors to follow a case through the court system from beginning to end. It differs from the approach of having different prosecutors in general sessions court where preliminary hearings are held and criminal court where trials are held and guilty pleas are taken.

Gibbons has also filed nuisance petitions against the owners of more than 200 nightclubs, strip clubs, apartment complexes, motels and alleged drug houses, closing several of the nightclubs and strip clubs permanently.

The petitions have been both separate cases as well as parts of larger campaigns with other agencies to undo the effects of blight in some neighborhoods and crack down on a strip club industry that carries a national reputation for operating with no regard for numerous attempts at legal regulation.

In the strip club investigations, Gibbons has been careful to point out the efforts aren’t an attempt to put the clubs out of business but attempts to get the club owners to follow the law.

Nevertheless, the nuisance actions have been the most potent weapons in several decades of civic campaigns aimed at the clubs and their owners.

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