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Can the Durham DA's office regain respect after Nifong and Cline?

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Wherever they go, Durham leaders say they've been prodded with the same question: What is wrong with the district attorney's office? Twice in the past five years, Durham's top prosecutor has unexpectedly, disastrously, publicly imploded.

"It's sad. We've made so much progress in Durham," said City Councilman Eugene Brown. "But this is an area where we're still faltering."

Former DA Tracey Cline's recent political collapse has garnered not just local but national intrigue since last fall, when she accused Judge Orlando Hudson of dishonesty and "moral turpitude." She says Hudson repeatedly ruled against her in court as part of a personal grudge. Last week, a judge reviewing Cline's conduct ruled that she made false and malicious statements against Hudson that brought her office into "disrepute." The judge permanently removed Cline, 48, from office. She is appealing the decision and declined an interview with the Indy.

Retired judge Leon Stanback, 69, has been appointed as interim DA. He has said he's willing to manage the office until Cline's appeal is resolved and a DA can be elected, which could be as long as two years.

Meanwhile, elected officials and other leaders are pondering how—or if—the DA's office can shed its bad rep. The accusations Cline laid out in lengthy public court documents were unprecedented, her peers say.

"There have been controversial cases in Durham over the years, but they've not elevated into this kind of personal antagonism that's been publicly drawn out, like this has," said Irving Joyner, a professor at the N.C. Central University law school, where Cline received her degree in 1989.

Curiosity over Cline's removal has been amplified by the fact that she took office after the departure of Mike Nifong, who was disbarred in 2007 for pursuing false rape charges against three Duke University lacrosse players. After Nifong's ouster, the charge from voters was clear: Cline, a tireless victims' advocate and the daughter of a Baptist preacher, needed to restore integrity and stability to one of the most powerful elected offices in Durham.

"We were coming off of a national scandal. It attracted a huge amount of attention," said David Ball, a Durham-based jury consultant and one-time campaign supporter of both Nifong and Cline. "That made it even more important that the DA that followed Mike Nifong be even more careful of anything done in public when it came to accuracy and accusations—that excruciating pains be taken so that the reputation of the office not just be maintained, but restored."

Cline, who had worked as an assistant prosecutor in Durham since 1994, knew the challenge she faced in serving the rest of Nifong's term: "It is good to talk about the problems with the past so we will not repeat them," Cline wrote in a questionnaire for Indy readers during her 2008 campaign. "But what is really important is to show the citizens that you are a person to be trusted."

After she took office in January 2009, Cline inherited a backlog of cases—apparently the worst bottleneck in the state. But she set guidelines to resolve cases more quickly. Her office was able to cut the more than 80 pending murder cases in Durham's courts to a current level of around 40, she said in court. In 2010, after Cline had served a year in office, the DA's seat was up for its regularly scheduled election. Cline ran unopposed for a four-year term.

It was that year that Cline's troubles with Hudson began, she testified during the hearing on her conduct. Hudson had advised her to dismiss charges against Derrick Allen, a suspect in the sexual assault and killing of a 2-year-old girl, questioning the validity of evidence in the case. Cline didn't think Hudson knew all the facts and refused to drop the charges, she said. In December 2010, Hudson dismissed Allen's charges, and in the following months he ruled that Cline had withheld or suppressed evidence that would have helped the defense in the Allen case and others.

That wasn't true, Cline said. Late last year, she filed a complaint with the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, the prescribed route for concerns about a judge's actions. But she didn't give the commission enough time to do its job—not even one day, she admitted from the witness stand. The same day she wrote the commission, she also began filing requests to have Hudson removed from her court cases because of his bias against her.

The situations that led to the successive collapse of two district attorneys are disparate and unrelated, said James "Butch" Williams, a Durham defense lawyer of more than 30 years. Williams was one of many lawyers Cline consulted during her conflict with Hudson.

"I don't think there's a link," Williams said. "Both situations were very different, and no one could have predicted either situation."

Defense attorney Scott Holmes says right now, the legal community is talking about whether the removals are isolated or indicative of systemic problems. Holmes believes the political pressures of the prosecutor's office caused both Nifong and Cline to lose perspective. Both were being scrutinized on how they handled high-profile cases and may have been unwilling to accept or admit they had made mistakes.

"Here there were two excellent trial lawyers, who, when it came time to deal with the politics of that office, let the political issues that they had to deal with interfere with their judgment," Holmes said.

Although Nifong denied the claims, he was widely accused of pursuing charges against white Duke students for allegedly attacking a black woman in order to gain support from the black community in the 2006 DA's race. At the start of her downfall, Cline was immersed in negative press about her handling of evidence and became concerned with clearing her name, Holmes said.

Even before Cline's removal, the office seemed unstable. Since the fall of 2008, more than 20 employees in the DA's office have left, including 15 prosecutors, according to employment records and other sources. Those losses include veteran attorney David Saacks, who had served as a temporary replacement for Nifong and left to became a prosecutor in Wake County. The list also includes Mitch Garrell, who left after working on the Allen case. Garrell, who ran against Cline for DA in the 2008 primary, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Stanback is Durham's fourth acting DA since Nifong's departure. He said he has held several small meetings with his staff on how to get the office back on track. Morale is improving, he said, and "we're attacking the problems that we find one by one." Stanback says the job is "exciting" and he hasn't ruled out running for DA in the next election.

With more than 40 years as a lawyer and judge, Stanback is a level-headed and fair leader and can "right the ship," Williams said.

This week, Williams said that instead of people stopping him to ask "What in the world is going on in Durham?" they praised Stanback.

"Automatically the level of confidence has risen," Williams said. "They say, 'The right man's in the job.'"

This article appeared in print with the headline "The curse of the Durham DA."

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