This profile is part of our 2018 Power Issue. For more of 2018’s most powerful Texans, click here
Stacy Sylvester Lee Merritt is regarded by many as one of the country’s preeminent civil rights lawyers. He’s also regarded by many as a cop-hater who isn’t above fabricating stories to make law enforcement look bad. Such extreme opinions reflect the nation’s ongoing debate over the criminal justice system’s treatment of minorities, and the 35-year-old Plano man stands at the center of it.
Merritt was born in South Central Los Angeles, the flash point of the 1992 race riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King after a high-speed chase. Merritt went on to attend Atlanta’s historically black Morehouse College, where he was active in student government, and then enrolled in law school at Philadelphia’s Temple University. During his second year there, he got a summer internship at the Philadelphia office of the Los Angeles law firm of Johnnie L. Cochran, the civil rights attorney best known for defending O. J. Simpson but who had made his name representing black people in police brutality cases. When Merritt graduated, he signed on as an associate. A year and a half later, he started his own firm, and when his marriage dissolved and his ex-wife, a native Texan, moved home, Merritt relocated to Plano so their children could be with both parents. (He also maintains a residence in Philadelphia.)
In July 2016, Merritt was thrown onto the national stage after five Dallas police officers were gunned down during a protest against police brutality. The Dallas Police Department quickly posted on social media a photo of a black man at the protest carrying a rifle whom they regarded as a suspect. The man in the photo, Mark Hughes, wasn’t involved in the shooting, and hoping to clear his name—and keep from being shot on the street by angry cops—he turned himself in to the police and handed over his weapon. Though the police soon let him go, Hughes was unhappy about the way he had been treated: he claimed he had been interrogated without being read his rights, and the police hadn’t returned his rifle.
When Hughes’s brother Corey, an organizer of the march, contacted the New York writer and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King for help, King recommended he call Merritt, a former classmate of his at Morehouse. This past July, after two years of trying to get the police and city officials to sit down and talk about what happened, Merritt filed suit in federal court alleging that Hughes’s civil rights had been violated.
The media storm that followed Hughes’s arrest made Merritt almost as famous as Hughes, and soon the lawyer was getting calls from other African Americans in Texas and across the country who were in trouble with the police. Two and a half years later, Merritt has become a modern-day Johnnie Cochran: a controversial, relentless activist intent on changing police culture and holding officers accountable for their actions.
How he became the go-to lawyer for police brutality cases: I’m somebody of faith, so I don’t take any credit for it. It’s funny—the Cochran Firm spends a great deal of money on advertisements and marketing. I’ve never taken out an ad. I’ve never marketed my practice.
Why he focuses on cops, not victims: I’m increasingly frustrated with the focus on the victim. Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings said that Botham Jean [who was shot dead in his own apartment in September by an off-duty cop] was the kind of citizen that we want to attract to Dallas; he talked about Botham’s accolades almost as if it was for that reason that he deserved justice. No, that’s not the reason he deserves justice. Justice should be pursued for all victims, no matter who they are. The criminal justice system should not focus on the character of the victim but rather on the behavior of the assailant.
Why he’s unhappy that former Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver, who was convicted of the murder of Jordan Edwards in August, received a fifteen-year prison sentence. Merritt had advised the Edwards family during the ordeal and filed a federal civil rights suit on their behalf: It was bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s been almost fifty years in Dallas County since a cop has been convicted of murder, so it was a great relief to see that police officers can be held accountable. But given the nature of the crime and the nature of the person, I was hoping for at least a fifty-year sentence. The more you look at Oliver, he was a bad guy, from pulling a gun on a mother on Easter Sunday a couple of weeks prior [note: Oliver denies this incident occurred] to his long history of violence and hostility. And he betrayed the public trust from a position of authority. I honestly think police officers should be held to a higher standard than regular citizens. I deal with clients every day who are facing fifteen years for nonviolent crimes, drug offenses. To see Oliver sentenced to fifteen years took some of the power away from the conviction.
How he responds to people who say that he attacks police officers too quickly: I’ll accept the criticism, but it is a necessary other side of the coin. We know that if I wasn’t so aggressive, a lot of these shootings would never see the light of day. People are just not used to law enforcement being pushed back on. Lyndo Jones [who was shot twice in the back last year by a Mesquite police officer] is one of those cases that, without pushback, could have easily fallen through the cracks. The initial reports said “Man shot during the course of a burglary.” They didn’t report that he was “burglarizing” his own car. A year after Lyndo was shot, the video of the shooting was released in court. And when you look at it, that officer was completely out of control. He was behaving like Lyndo was committing an armed robbery.
Just like law enforcement has people who advocate on behalf of them, I advocate for my clients. We live in the deadliest police culture on earth—there’s no nation in the developed world that kills more of its citizens, period.
How he feels about the case of Sherita Dixon-Cole, a woman he was representing who claimed she’d been sexually assaulted by a state trooper at a traffic stop in May. Merritt told Shaun King about the allegation, who posted about it on Facebook and Twitter, causing national outrage, only to see it debunked by dashcam video. Merritt apologized and accepted responsibility, but his critics saw it as proof of his anti-cop bias: That was one time where I got ahead of the facts and was not able to obtain the necessary information and zealously advocated on behalf of the individual who gave me misinformation. But, you know, when the client says it and we believe it, we will go to bat for her.
People have attempted to discredit victims and their representation by highlighting rare incidents of false accusations against law enforcement. In my experience, law enforcement offers false narratives in almost every case of malfeasance. I zealously advocate for my clients with often incomplete information, but that is necessary, because not advocating on their behalf until we have all the evidence available would result in a gross miscarriage of justice in most cases.
What he tells his young children about how to deal with cops: We have the same talk that black families have all over the country: comply, be respectful, be polite. But in so many cases, like Botham Jean and Jordan Edwards, it wasn’t their failure to comply or their failure to comport themselves properly that got them killed. It was just the brutality of law enforcement officers. So we have the conversation, but the conversation needs to be had on the other side too: law enforcement officers need to know that if they engage in malfeasance, there’ll be accountability.
What he thinks about the website the Root putting him at number 8 on its 2017 list of the 100 most influential African Americans between the ages of 25 and 45, above Beyoncé: I don’t think I’m as talented in my field as Beyoncé is in hers. Ninety percent of my work is just showing up, being a resource, and using my training and experience in a field that is grossly underserved. The Bible says the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Unfortunately, the harvest for police brutality cases is huge.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Taking Black Lives Matter to the Courtroom.” Subscribe today.