Criminal Justice

Lee Merritt, Lawyer For Victims Of Police Killings, Plans To Run For Texas Attorney General

After years in the headlines for suing local law enforcement agencies for violating the civil rights of Black people, Lee Merritt decided this week to try a new approach to justice: Become the state’s top lawyer.

Tom Williams/AP/Pool CQ Roll Call
Attorney S. Lee Merritt testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on police use of force and community relations on on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 16, 2020 in Washington.

The civil rights lawyer told KERA Friday that the death of Marvin Scott III in the Collin County jail made it clear he needed to take a different approach to protect the civil rights of vulnerable Texans.

"I've decided that, this case being the line, that I'm running against Ken Paxton for attorney general in 2022," Merritt said Friday morning.

Ken Paxton was first elected attorney general in 2014.

"I'm tired, tired, tired of getting phone calls," from grieving families of people killed by law enforcement officers, Merritt said.

Merritt is representing Scott's family.

Scott had a documented history of schizophrenia, and was undergoing a manic episode when he was arrested by the Allen Police Department on Sunday for allegedly possessing a marijuana joint, Merritt said.

The 26-year-old should have been taken to a mental health facility, Merritt said.

Instead, Scott was taken to a hospital and then booked into the Collin County Detention Center. Four hours later, officials say, he was dead, after corrections staff had pepper sprayed him, covered his head with a spit hood, and forcefully tied him down to a bed.

Merritt said it's the latest of several cases of Black men being treated as criminals and dying when experiencing mental health crises. It's all the more personal, he said, because his 11-year-old son has autism, and he worries about how he'll be perceived by police.

These killings are civil rights issues, and Merritt said the attorney general has an obligation to ensure people with disabilities and Black people are treated equally under the law.

"Our community — and I don't mean the Black community, I mean Texas — will die from this," Merritt said. "It will rip up this state if we don't address this, because they're going to keep killing us. Law enforcement will keep killing people suffering from mental health crises and it will cause additional trauma to the community."

Merritt has represented a number of families whose Black relatives were killed by police officers, including the families of Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson, both of whom were killed in their homes. He is also an attorney for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in Georgia last year, allegedly by white vigilantes.

In North Texas, Merritt sued the Balch Springs Police Department on behalf of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was killed by an officer. That officer was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Merritt connected the Scott case in Collin County to other recent cases of Black men in Texas who died at the hands of law enforcement while experiencing mental health crises.

Damian Daniels, an Iraq War veteran, was killed on his porch by Bexar County sheriff's deputies after exhibiting paranoia and telling deputies he was hearing voices.

Darius Tarver, a University of North Texas student was killed last year by Denton police during a mental health episode. A Denton County grand jury on Thursday declined to issue an indictment in that killing.

Merritt is also representing the family of Patrick Warren, a Killeen pastor who was killed in January after his family had called police to get him help.

After handling cases like these, Merritt said he decided to run for attorney general because Paxton and other Republican state leaders have failed to protect them.

"Never mind that they're veterans, that they're medical students like Atatiana Jefferson, that they're accountants like Botham Jean. They're Black and he just doesn't see them," Merritt said. "He doesn't see them."

Merritt did not indicate if he would run in the Democratic Party, and said he has only started the process of setting up a campaign. He doesn't expect a formal announcement until May. The first day to file to run in the state is July 17.

Joe Jaworski, a Democrat and former Galveston mayor, announced in September that he will run for attorney general.

Paxton is seeking re-election to a third term as he battles allegations from seven of his top aides that he abused his office and participated in bribery to help a campaign donor. The donor, real estate developer Nate Paul, also allegedly gave Paxton's mistress a job at his company, according to a whistleblower lawsuit filed by four former Paxton appointees.

The FBI is investigating the allegations, according to the Associated Press.

Separately, Paxton has also been under indictment for securities fraud since shortly after he took office in 2015. That case has never gone to trial, delayed by years of legal wrangling related to venue and other issues.

Paxton has denied any wrongdoing.

This story originally appeared on KERA.

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