Merritt, a budding civil rights attorney who lived in the area, scrambled into action, arranging a last-minute babysitter and arriving at the family’s house around dawn. Over the following days, as the killing of Edwards drew national attention, Merritt took on the role of both spokesman and legal adviser. He defended Edwards and his family relentlessly in the news media, railed against police brutality from his Twitter account and pressed prosecutors to charge the officer involved, which they did. The officer was eventually convicted of murder.
“I told them we would get justice,” Merritt said.
Merritt’s response to the April 2017 shooting of the teen helped transform him into one of the country’s most widely known civil rights attorneys. Over the past several years, the 36-year-old has taken on clients in a spate of high-profile police accountability cases and represented victims of racially motivated attacks captured in viral videos. Along the way, he has garnered praise from prominent civil rights leaders while drawing criticism from law enforcement officials who say he unfairly vilifies police and even some activists wary of his place in the spotlight.
Merritt has again emerged at the center of the national debate over race and policing after a Dallas jury last week convicted Amber Guyger, a white police officer, of murdering her unarmed black neighbor, Botham Jean, and sentenced her to 10 years in prison. Merritt is representing both Jean’s family and the family of Joshua Brown, a key witness in the case and neighbor of Jean’s who was fatally shot 10 days after he testified against the officer.
The Dallas Police Department on Tuesday identified three suspects in the shooting of Brown. Seeking to dispel rumors that Brown’s testimony had made him a target, the department also emphatically denied that Brown’s death was connected to the Guyger case or that Dallas police were somehow involved.
So far, Merritt is following virtually the same playbook in his representation of Brown’s family as he did with the Edwards family and other clients. Brown’s family reached out for help through a common friend, Merritt said; soon after, he went public with questions about whether authorities should have provided more protection to Brown and called on the police department to recuse itself from the investigation. He said Tuesday that he was glad police had named suspects, but he cautioned that a “cloud of suspicion will rest over this case until steps are taken to ensure the trustworthiness of the process.”
Merritt has learned to tailor his practice for moments like these. Aided by his social media savvy and a network of supporters in the legal, activist and religious communities, he has honed his approach for an era in which news tends to break on Twitter and stories of racial injustice erupt in the public consciousness. He embraces his dual role as activist and advocate, often pushing authorities to meet with families early on in attempts to “humanize” their experience. Most of all, he says he puts a premium on holding police criminally accountable before turning to civil court.
“My goal is to change the culture of policing in America,” Merritt told The Washington Post. “I put that above the financial outcome. I tell my clients, ‘If you want someone who is going to try to maximize your recovery, you might want to go to a different lawyer.’ ”
Civil rights and racial justice have been a core part of Merritt’s world since childhood. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles during the height of racial tension surrounding the police beating of Rodney King. Police brutality was “at the forefront of conversation at the dinner table,” he said.
As an undergraduate, he attended historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, and went on to teach grass-roots activism at a small public high school in Atlanta. His work at the school included a project to call attention to housing discrimination in the area, but eventually, he said, he “hit a wall” and pondered whether he would make a bigger impact as an attorney.
He enrolled at Temple Law School in Philadelphia, where he set his sights on the Cochran Firm, founded by the late civil rights attorney and activist Johnnie Cochran, whom Merritt idolized as a young man. He got the job, but ended up taking on motor vehicle cases, not civil rights work. After he clashed with some of his superiors, the firm let him go, he said.
In 2015, as he was going through a divorce, Merritt moved to the Dallas suburbs to be closer to his five children, all of whom are elementary school-aged or younger. It was there that he found his footing in civil rights.
A pivotal moment for Merritt came in July 2016, when a gunman opened fire on a peaceful racial justice march in downtown Dallas, killing five officers. In the confusion following the attack, police misidentified the shooter as Mark Hughes, a local activist. Merritt tweeted about the error. His posts were picked up by the well-known racial justice activist Shaun King, a longtime friend of Merritt’s and his former classmate at Morehouse. In short order, Hughes’s brother reached out to Merritt for help clearing Hughes’s name.
In that episode and in other cases Merritt has taken up since, Merritt has benefited from King’s million-strong Twitter following, often working with King directly to publicize his work and his clients’ stories. It has also turned Merritt into something of a social media personality.
For his supporters, Merritt’s outspokenness and his ability to draw attention to his cases make him a natural leader for this moment.
“He really has that defiant tenacity in him of saying, ‘This is what’s right and we’re going to be unyielding,’ even if he’s not going to be perceived as popular,” said Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney and mentor to Merritt who is best known for representing the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Both were unarmed black teenagers when they were killed, Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida and Brown by a Missouri police officer.
“I think he’s absolutely the right person to lead the charge,” said Crump, who also represented the Jean family. “He’s so well positioned to hand the torch to, and I know that he will continue to light the way for others in this struggle.”
But not everyone takes such a glowing view. Some in law enforcement have called him a cop-hater who spreads false information about officers in use-of-force incidents. Even within the civil rights activist community, some view him as an opportunist who swoops in on grieving families, monopolizing the spotlight for his own gain. On more than one occasion he has clashed with leading Black Lives Matter activists over his tactics and his association with King, who has been accused of mishandling fundraising efforts (King denies the allegations).
Merritt doesn’t flinch at the criticisms.
“If the only thing I’m doing is getting money and fame, then I should be judged accordingly,” he said. “If I’m helping people getting just outcomes and making sacrifices, then I should be judged by that.”
As Merritt’s star has risen, he has also had some blunders, and at one point found himself facing legal trouble.
In May 2018, Merritt, with King’s help, amplified a North Texas woman’s claim that a state trooper sexually assaulted her during a traffic stop. It turned out to be a fabrication: Body camera footage quickly exonerated the officer, who had reportedly received death threats, prompting Merritt to apologize.
Merritt’s detractors seized on the incident as evidence of an anti-cop agenda. “He’s developed a cottage industry out of hating the police and that’s just unfortunate,” Charley Wilkison, executive director of Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, told the Dallas Morning News last year.
Also in 2018, a Texas district attorney filed a complaint with the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee alleging Merritt was practicing Texas law without a license. Merritt isn’t licensed to practice state law in Texas, but said he practiced federal law exclusively in his cases, which is permitted. A judge eventually cleared him of 16 counts of criminal contempt after Merritt agreed not to not to handle state law cases in Texas.
Thus far, setbacks like those haven’t derailed Merritt. If anything, he is as sought-after as he ever has been. He said he spends no money on advertising for his firm, which employs two other attorneys and a secretary. His clients, he said, almost always come to him through word of mouth, typically referred by local politicians, church figures and other community leaders. He said his social media accounts are often so flooded he can’t even read direct messages and mentions.
Going forward, Merritt said he wants to expand his practice, training new attorneys in his approach. The recent verdict in the Botham Jean case made him optimistic about what lies ahead, he said. “I think we’re slowly starting to see the tide turn,” he said.