Former Memphis Judge Exposes Broken Justice System with Decline in Jury Trials Leading to Lenient Plea Deals

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – After more than five years since the fatal shooting of Greater Memphis Chamber president Phil Trenary, one of the two men accused in his murder has reached a plea deal. McKinney Wright, 27 years old, pleaded guilty to the crime in December 2023. The murder took place in September 2018.

The slow progress of cases making their way through the court system has raised concerns. Retired judge Bobby Carter, who now serves as a court consultant under former Memphis mayor Jim Strickland, believes that more efficient use of available tools is necessary. One such tool that Carter highlights as not being utilized enough is jury trials.

According to a report published by Carter on the City’s website, the number of jury trials in Shelby County, where Memphis is located, has significantly declined from around 200 per year before the pandemic to only about 40 per year in the aftermath, resulting in a backlog of cases and more lenient plea deals.

This decrease in jury trials has prompted discussions on the effectiveness of the justice system. Carter argues that the lowering of plea offers and the subsequent rise in plea deals do not align with the principles of justice. In response to this perspective, District Attorney Steve Mulroy states that their focus should be on resolving cases, whether through a jury trial or a plea agreement. He also highlights that the majority of cases end with plea agreements.

A report from the American Bar Association reveals that 98% of guilty convictions in the country come from plea deals, which has raised concerns about the potential for wrongful convictions. While Bobby Carter criticizes the decline in jury trials, Mulroy attributes the backlog to the halt in jury trials caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a situation not unique to Shelby County.

Since the extensive backlog, leadership changes have occurred due to the 2022 election, resulting in five newly appointed judges and a new district attorney. Mulroy, along with the new judges, has been working for a year and a half to address the backlog.

When asked about the expected timeframe to clear the backlog, Mulroy stated that it largely depends on how the judges schedule the trials. To improve efficiency, he suggests scheduling multiple trials a day and keeping cases with the same prosecutor.

To address funding disparities within his office, Mulroy recently received $1.7 million from Shelby County Commissioners. This funding will help close the pay gap between prosecutors paid through state funds and those paid with county money, ultimately enabling the recruitment and retention of experienced prosecutors.

While progress is being made, Carter, who continues to serve under his contract with the city until the trial of Phil Trenary’s alleged killer in May, has chosen not to actively monitor court proceedings.