ADAA Chaplain Walt Merrell reflects on a year of tragedies and helping prosecutors cope with the stress of their job.
When fellow District Attorney Greg Griggers was injured in an ambush shooting outside his Demopolis office in November 2018, Walt Merrell knew it was time. Before the shooting, Merrell, the district attorney for Covington County, had felt a calling to use his faith and his experience assisting people dealing with personal struggles, to help prosecutors cope with the trauma and heartbreak they regularly encounter as part of their job.
The means to doing that was the creation of the position of chaplain for the Alabama District Attorneys Association.
“It was something that was on my mind. I felt that it’s something the association needed,” Merrell said, though he was hesitant at first to ask to be appointed chaplain. “When Greg got shot, I was interested in reaching out to him. One of the things that came out of it is we have a much stronger relationship. I am grateful for that.”
Less than a month after the shooting, the ADAA created the position of chaplain and appointed Merrell.
“I saw that too many of my peers, friends and casual acquaintances were drowning in the turmoil of doing their job,” Merrell said. Prosecutors on a regular basis must confront heinous crimes, acts of cruelty and grieving families.
“The things you see as a prosecutor, you can’t un-see. The way you recover from that is through hope. My job is to comfort and offer encouragement, and to suggest to them there is hope out there.”
The past year has been an especially difficult one for the ADAA family. In November, Sloan Harmon, the 20-year-old son of St. Clair County District Attorney Lyle Harmon, was shot and killed while driving in St. Clair County. And over the course of the year, six law enforcement officers, including longtime and well-loved Lowndes County Sheriff John Williams, were killed in the line of duty.
In addition, the high-profile abductions and murders of a 3-year-old girl in Birmingham and a 19-year-old female college student in Auburn shook both the public and those in law enforcement involved in the desperate searches after they went missing. The emotional toll from dealing with such tragic cases is akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, Merrell said.
“Prosecutors and police officers face a secondhand trauma on a daily basis,” he said. “Many suffer PTSD from reliving the tragedies through the victims.
“Prosecutors have to have a very rigid exoskeleton to be immune from personal attacks and attacks from defense attorneys when we are just doing our job. But that exoskeleton doesn’t make us immune to the pain and suffering we see from the victims. It’s just a shell. We are still people inside. What I hope happens (through my position as chaplain) is a mechanism of support for those who are worn out or need help coping, without them having to worry about the stigma of going to counseling.”
Merrell has served as district attorney for Covington County since 2011. Before that, he worked four years as an assistant district attorney, preceded by six years in private practice as a criminal defense and plaintiff lawyer.
Outside of his work in the courtroom, Merrell puts in action his faith as a devout Christian as well as his desire to help others. He regularly speaks to schoolchildren and community and religious groups about the importance of making good decisions, staying out of trouble and avoiding the dangers of alcohol and drugs.
Fifteen years ago, Merrell helped found an addiction recovery program to provide resources to people trying to straighten out their lives. Crossover Ministry grew into a residential addiction recovery program six years ago with a facility in Opp and has served more than 1,000 people.
“The single biggest threat to the stability of our nation and to the structure of our society is addiction,” Merrell said. “Ninety to ninety-five percent of crimes are drug related or drug motivated. From that standpoint, you have to fix the problem. I tell people our job is not to prosecute, it’s to fix the problem.”
When he and six other men came together to create Crossover Ministry, there was a severe scarcity of resources in Covington County to treat those with substance abuse problems, Merrell said. Now, the residential program can accommodate up to 36 people – both men and women – at a time. Participants graduate after six months. All funding comes from donations, he said.
“We want them to successfully live sober,” Merrell said. “A guy came back after going through treatment and said, ‘You saved my life.’ He wanted to start a drug treatment program in Covington County.”
Barry Matson, executive director of the ADAA, said the DAs appreciate having Merrell available to talk with. Matson is usually the first to get the call when tragedy hits or a DA needs help.
“Having Walt is a real resource,” Matson said. “I make it a point to be there personally when one of the DAs needs help or a family needs comforting. But having someone else available, especially someone they know well and who demonstrates such a strong faith, is a big plus for the association. I am proud of the work Walt does.”
Merrell was first appointed ADAA chaplain last year by former association President Tom Anderson of Enterprise. The current president, Jill Lee of Shelby County, gladly kept him in the post this year.
“Walt is a no-nonsense guy, but he has a love for God and a passion for people,” Lee said. “It shows in his willingness to reach out to other DAs who might be going through some things. It also shows in the work he’s doing in his community. We are very fortunate to have him.”
Joe Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission and an ADAA affiliate member, said it’s important for the association to have a chaplain, and he believes Merrell is a great fit for the job.
“Walt has a deep conviction for the law. He has a deep conviction for his faith. He has a deep conviction for the truth,” Borg said. “A prosecutor’s job is to serve and protect the citizens of his jurisdiction. When you have someone with deep convictions, it’s a system that brings true justice.”
Larry Smith is a retired chief investigator for the Madison County DA’s office and has been an ADAA member since 1972.“I was really pleased they created the position of chaplain,” Smith said. “We have things to celebrate, and we have things to grieve. Having established that position, DAs now have someone with their background to celebrate with and to grieve with. Walt is a spiritual man who knows how to reach out and connect with other people.”
Merrell said being a district attorney does make it easier identifying with the emotional and spiritual strains that other DAs face.
“There’s a certain comradery that exists. We kind of think only other prosecutors can understand what we go through,” he said. “The typical prosecutor is guided by two things: enforcement of the law and doing what we know to be right. The prosecutor who is working hardest to protect society is wearing himself or herself out. That’s why we need a chaplain.”
Opinion | Giving thanks and staying safe
“As we’ve learned to adjust our daily routines and activities throughout the course of this pandemic, we know this Thanksgiving will not look like those of the past.”
Thanksgiving is a special holiday because it provides us an entire day each year to pause and give thanks for the many blessings we have received. Particularly amid a global pandemic, the stress and craziness of life often make it easy to lose sight of just how much we have to be thankful for.
Although this holiday season will look different for us all due to the current health pandemic, we must remember the countless ways in which we are blessed.
Whether you are gathering with loved ones or remaining in the comfort of your own home, I hope we all take time to celebrate gratitude — something we may not do enough of these days.
This year, it is especially important we remember those who have been impacted by the coronavirus. This horrific virus we continue to battle has stolen the lives of over 250,000 Americans and 3,400 Alabamians.
During this season of Thanksgiving, I hope you will join me in prayerfully remembering those who have lost a loved one to this virus as well as those who are suffering from it. My prayers are with those who are missing a family member or friend this holiday season.
As we’ve learned to adjust our daily routines and activities throughout the course of this pandemic, we know this Thanksgiving will not look like those of the past. Please be mindful of any safety measures and precautions that have been put in place to help protect your family and those around you.
The Alabama Department of Public Health released guidance that includes a list of low, moderate and high-risk activities in order to help Alabamians have a safer holiday season. ADPH suggests a few lower-risk activities such as having a small dinner with members of your household, preparing and safely delivering meals to family and neighbors who are at high-risk or hosting a virtual dinner with friends.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hosting an outdoor gathering and limiting the number of guests.
While the road to recovery is not always easy, I am confident that we will get through this health crisis together, and we will be better because of it. The American people are resilient, and we will not let this virus knock us down.
In the spirit of the holiday, I want to take this opportunity to tell you that I am thankful for the responsibility to serve our state and country in the United States Congress.
I am honored to be in a position to make a difference on behalf of Alabama’s 2nd District, so thank you for allowing me to serve you. From the Roby family to yours, we hope you have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.
Opinion | 400 years later, the Pilgrim story is more relevant than ever
“I think that giving thanks for the land that we call home is especially important this year.”
This Thanksgiving will be different from any other we have had in our lifetimes. This past year has been a struggle, as every single one of us has had their normal lives disrupted. Many of us have also lost friends and family as the Coronavirus has swept through our communities. To say 2020 has been a trying time would be an understatement.
This year has not been unlike that first year the Pilgrims spent after landing at Plymouth Rock; their crossing of the Atlantic, their year of loss and struggle and their ultimate triumph.
Four hundred years ago, a group of 102 passengers set sail from England on a ship known as the Mayflower. They left their homeland with eyes set on the New World, where hopes of religious freedom and entrepreneurial opportunities awaited. Today, four centuries later, the New World that these pilgrims found is now the greatest country in the world, the United States of America.
As we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving in a few days with our loved ones, (as best we can under the current situation) I think that giving thanks for the land that we call home is especially important this year. With the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, we can look back and admire those brave men and women who embarked on a dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the passengers aboard that ship sought religious freedom that would only be possible here in the New World. That religious freedom they risked their lives for remains a value we treasure and must continue to defend today. Sadly, it’s a freedom we too often take for granted each and every day.
And when rough weather forced the Mayflower to land in Massachusetts rather than Virginia, the seeds of democracy were sewn. It was the Mayflower Compact that gave way to the Pilgrims establishing a colony that created its own laws and abided by them. This incredible feat of getting consensus among a diverse group is what led to the first self-governing document in the New World. The Mayflower Compact established something that had never been done before but was soon to be replicated on a larger scale when the nation’s Founding Father’s put pen to parchment and drafted the Constitution.
It was the brave passengers of the Mayflower who started the tradition of a day of giving thanks in the year 1621. That first year, especially the winter of 1620-21 was harsh and deadly. Of the 102 original passengers, 45 died the first year. Many died from exposure to the cold, from diseases and from malnutrition. Four entire Mayflower families also died that first winter in Massachusetts.
But those who survived persevered. While it wasn’t called Thanksgiving back then, it was a joyous celebration of the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest that they invited nearby Native Americans to join. Some two hundred and forty years later, President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be observed on the final Thursday of each November.
While we are still struggling through the season of COVID, we can look to those 102 brave souls from four centuries ago who also struggled. But they trusted that brighter days and the prospect of freedom were on the horizon. Not only that, but they looked to God for their guidance and thank him for bringing them to the place we are today.
So, on this Thanksgiving, while we still struggle, we can take comfort from those who came before us. We owe so much to the Pilgrims, as God put it in their hearts to travel to the New World. Furthermore, they set before us a spirit of Thanksgiving to the all-knowing God. And that is an example for us today, perhaps even more so than ever.
Opinion | Record voter turnout in Alabama shows need for voting legislation
“When Alabamians had reasonable and secure options to access the ballot, they exercised their right to vote in the highest numbers in state history.”
More than 140 million voters took part in the historic 2020 election. Alabamians cast 2.3 million ballots, and cast absentee ballots in record numbers. More than 300,000 absentee votes were requested in-person or by mail.
Headlines have lauded the level of participation; however, we must be careful in allowing a narrative to capture a moment while erasing the history and evolution of voter suppression in this state and across the Deep South.
That is why now more than ever, we must expand voting in Alabama.
The full enfranchisement of voters based on race has only been in place for 55 years since the passing of the Voting Rights Act, but that has since been undermined with the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which removed federal oversight from state voting regulations and allowed for burdensome requirements like voter ID to become the standard.
Alabama, the very battleground for voting rights in this country, once again backslid and since then has remained even behind many of our neighbors as far as options for voting.
However, this year, when Alabama emerged as a hotspot for COVID-19, state leaders ensured voters would have more choices when casting their ballot this year by permitting use of the absentee and in-person absentee voting for all registered voters.
This opportunity energized voters, as we saw long lines outside of courthouses across Alabama, from Mobile and Montgomery to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Voter turnout exceeded 66 percent nationwide and 61 percent in the state.
When Alabamians had reasonable and secure options to access the ballot, they exercised their right to vote in the highest numbers in state history.
These numbers show that Alabama voters want more voting options prior to Election Day, and it is now up to lawmakers in this state to take a stance for the citizens of Alabama. In the upcoming legislative session, the Alabama legislature must ensure we make voting expansion a priority.
The right to the ballot box should not depend on signatory requirements or excuses to be able to vote safely by mail, as millions of Americans did this past election. Passing legislation can give working parents, caregivers, people with disabilities, and all voters more choices so that voting is made simple and accessible for all Alabamians.
This historic fight of Civil Rights activists in this very state sent a message to not only the rest of the U.S., but to the world, that democracy and the right to vote is one of our most powerful tools to make our voices heard.
This year, our collective voices have been resounding, and despite our circumstances — a global pandemic, an international social movement, and major political shifts that have impacted our families and our communities for decades to come — we ensured that our voices were heard at the ballot box.
Today, we must aim to be a shining example once again of democracy’s promise and demonstrate that free, fair and accessible elections drive civic engagement at every level and give the people of Alabama the voice in our government that we deserve.
Opinion | Warning: Your blood may boil
“One truth can not be denied. Someone was up to no good. And their empty proclamations to put our children first were lies.”
OK. It is not unusual for me to lose my cool in this very weird and very crazy political turmoil swirling around us. And why not when we are engulfed in adults acting like children?
However, none of these get me stirred up like the saga I am about to relate.
The reason being I know too much about what happened and heard many of the lies and attempts at deception in person. And certainly, because at the end of the day, it was the public school students of Alabama who paid the costs incurred because certain “public officials” betrayed the public trust.
This all unfolded in 2016, when the State Board of Education made one of the most boneheaded moves I’ve ever witnessed by hiring Mike Sentance of Massachusetts to be our state superintendent of education. He was a disaster. Not an educator, never a teacher, principal or local superintendent. Had applied for the Alabama job in 2011 and didn’t even get an interview.
State educators were almost solidly committed to wanting Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey to get the job. They considered giving the job to Sentance a slap in the face (The fact that Sentance lasted one year before packing his bags removed any doubt that he was a very bad choice).
Sentance was announced as the choice on Aug. 11, 2016. But even then, rumors of misdoing were afoot and then-State Sen. Gerald Dial called for an investigation into the hiring process within a week.
Someone orchestrated a smear campaign against Pouncey, obviously to hurt his chances of being selected by the State Board of Education. A packet of info was distributed to each board member alleging wrongdoing by Pouncey. All board members discounted the info — except Mary Scott Hunter of Huntsville.
Let’s fast forward a moment. When the dust finally settled, Pouncey filed suit against Hunter and others. And just last week, Bill Britt, the editor of the Alabama Political Reporter filed the following:
[You can read all of APR’s story here.]
I spent hours and hours tracking this story. What I learned was disgusting and sickening. It was obvious that the trust citizens had placed in elected officials to protect the interest of public school students was ignored. This was not about helping kids and teachers and administrators and trying to find the best state superintendent possible, it was about political agendas and adults trying to cover their ass.
I am no kid. The first-ever real life political campaign I was part of was in 1972. Which is to say that I’ve seen my share of political shenanigans. But none more repulsive than what happened in 2016.
Dial asked the attorney general to investigate what took place. Then he and his colleague, Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross, passed a resolution creating a legislative committee to investigate. I went to each of these sessions. They were standing room only. All kinds of folks showed up, including some of Alabama’s most recognized lobbyists.
One of the more amazing things that happened was when Mary Scott Hunter, an attorney herself, told Dial that “she did not know the rules” about how the state ethics commission was supposed to handle anonymous complaints.
So Pouncey filed suit in an effort to clear his name. I don’t blame him. I would have as well.
Among the things about all this that never made sense is why the state of Alabama footed the legal bill for defending those in the suit, especially Hunter.
Her actions were of her own choosing. She became a rogue state board member. She did not consult with other members before she began making sure the Ethics Commission had a copy of the bogus complaint. No other board members did this.
For whatever reason, she took matters into her own hands in an effort to harm Pouncey. She was outside the bounds of her duties and responsibilities as a state board member.
But as is common, this legal action moved at the speed of paint drying. Then COVID-19 got in the way and civil suits got shoved to the end of the line. The best, most recent guess as to when the case would show up on a court docket was at least two years from now.
The state offered to settle for $100,000. After careful consideration with his attorney, Pouncey reluctantly decided to settle. I know Pouncey well. He has told me repeatedly that this was never about money. Instead, it was about his reputation and how certain people were willing to put politics above the interest of students. But the expectations of such ever happening grew dimmer with each day and the suit was settled.
The truth will never be known. A court will never render a verdict pointing out guilty parties. We are only left with our assumptions, based on pieced together facts gleaned from discussions and paperwork.
But one truth can not be denied. Someone was up to no good. And their empty proclamations to put our children first were lies.