Gibbons reflects on time as District Attorney - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Gibbons reflects on time as District Attorney

By Joe Birch - bio | email | Facebook

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-T) - Shelby County's District Attorney General, Bill Gibbons, begins a new job this Sunday, when he will be sworn in as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

For Gibbons, a robbery on the front steps of his home opened his eyes to what it is like to be a crime victim.

"Suddenly I had four guns pointed at me, and one of the guys saying, 'Give us your money or we're going to kill you.' Your whole life flashes before you at that point," he said.

It happened while Gibbons was serving on the city council in the mid-1980s.

"It would not haven taken much for one of those guys to pull the trigger," Gibbons said. "Luckily, that didn't happen."

The quartet of kids got away with Gibbons' watch, the only thing of value he had on him.  Remembering the experience, the silver-haired D.A. has spent 14 years now visiting middle schools, where many children are growing up in the kind of poverty Gibbons suffered in rural Arkansas as the youngest of six.

"My father abandoned us when was four years of age, and I watched as my mother lost our farm in foreclosure, and had to sell items of personal property piece by piece just to make ends meet - to have enough money to buy food and keep the lights on. It was a very, very difficult childhood," he said.

Gibbons moved to Memphis, attended Central High and connected with mentors who helped guide him.

"If I can do it, so can thousands of kids in this community," he said.

Gibbons created his own mentoring program in the D.A.'s office where, he'll step down on Friday. Looking back, the prosecutor credits Operation: Safe Community as the game-changing plan that has put a huge dent in Memphis crime.

"The trends are very, very encouraging," he said.

All violent crime in Memphis is down significantly since 2006, with the exception of domestic violence. Governor-elect Bill Haslam wants Gibbons to remain as Memphis chair of Operation: Safe Community, even as he creates a similar strategy for all of Tennessee.

"Coming up with a state-wide plan, a statewide agenda to tackle crime and to bring all the state agencies together behind that - that was very appealing to me," he said.

In his time as District Attorney, Gibbons pushed for more jail time for gun crimes and prosecuted those arrested in Blue Crush, the research based policing strategy that saturates crime ridden neighborhoods.

Gibbons also helped establish the Drug Court, community courts for problem properties, as well as domestic violence court.  Additionally, he used the nuisance law to shut down countless clubs and the dens of more than 300 drug dealers.

But Gibbons said an emotional reaction to one plea deal is what kept him up at night. The family of a murder victim, Mickey Wright, lashed out after the Gibbons accepted a 15 year sentence for confessed killer Dale Mardis. Wright, a code enforcement officer, disappeared on the job in 2001. In 2007, Gibbons finally was about to nail Mardis on a first degree murder charge when witnesses suddenly changed their stories and left prosecutors without a 1st degree case.

"I failed to adequately explain to the family why we were doing what we were doing, and that's something I regret very much," he said.

Gibbons assembled a dream team of prosecutors who convicted Lester Street killer Jessie Dotson. During that trial, Gibbons interacted with the children who survived the mass murder of a half dozen people and testified against their uncle:

"Talk about some brave kids. They are really brave kids," he said.

While going after hardened criminals, the Gibbons also had to go after parents who let their children skip school:

"It's the responsibility of every parent to make sure his or her child is in school," he said last July.

Despite all of the community's challenges, Gibbons said he believes deeply in Memphis and plans to commute from Nashville back to his Midtown home each weekend:

"I really think our best years as a community are ahead of us, not behind us," he said.

Gibbons will be sworn-in to Governor-Elect Bill Haslam's cabinet this Saturday. He took the job, in part, because Haslam promised to appoint his number two in command, Amy Weirich, to the job of Shelby County District Attorney.

Gibbons said it gave him a comfort level that the people of Shelby County will have an able prosecutor to fight crime as he moves on to Nashville.

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