When Tracey Cline loses her cool, so does Durham | Durham County | Indy Week

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When Tracey Cline loses her cool, so does Durham

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Three Triangle-area attorneys testified Monday that they have lost confidence in Durham County's justice system because of the actions and media coverage of embattled District Attorney Tracey Cline.

Lawyers across the state are talking about the public accusations Cline has lodged against Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, said Staples Hughes, director of the state Office of the Appellate Defender.

A judge suspended Cline last month. Hughes testified during a hearing on whether she should keep her job.

"Pretty much anywhere I go ... if the subject of Durham comes up, the conversation focuses on Ms. Cline's filing these motions and the extraordinary and singular character of those motions," Hughes said. "It is regarded that she's simply, for whatever reason, completely out of control," he added.

Cline could lose her job as district attorney, which she took in 2009, and possibly her career. In an ongoing feud, she has accused Hudson of acting in his own personal interest instead of in the interest of justice. She says Hudson has a personal vendetta against her and helped create "media mayhem" through a series of stories The News & Observer published last fall. The stories examined Cline's conduct in court and findings that she and others mishandled or failed to disclose evidence that might have helped defendants.

Durham defense attorney Kerry Sutton filed a petition last month to have Cline removed from office because she publicized her conflict with Hudson instead of addressing her concerns through the state's Judicial Standards Commission.

Monday's hearing was an opportunity for Sutton to present evidence that Cline's behavior has eroded confidence in Durham's judicial system and brought it into disrepute.

For about an hour, Sutton asked Hughes to read excerpts from the hundreds of pages Cline has filed condemning Hudson. In the documents, Cline questions his character and objectivity and says Hudson has ruled against her in court as a means of retaliation.

As Hughes read passages from Cline's missives, Sutton projected them onto a screen in the courtroom. From time to time, Cline looked up at her own words, many of them now infamous: "For those who use this court for special situations outside the lines of right and wrong. Don't hide your dirty hands," Hughes read from Cline's filings. "And to those who have seen, and know, yet turn a blind eye, acknowledge that your hands are covered with the blood of justice. And be ashamed."

Another infamous excerpt accuses Hudson of "relentlessly" and "repeatedly" raping victims by dismissing criminal charges in the crimes against them.

Hughes said in more than 30 years as an attorney, he has never seen a prosecutor make such bold public accusations against a judge.

"I do not, after reading that pleading, trust Ms. Cline's judgment in prosecuting cases in this judicial district," he said. "I think it utterly undercuts her credibility and trust that the public should feel in their prosecutor."

Two other attorneys, Thomas Maher and Cheri Patrick, also testified that based on what they had learned through the media and conversations in the community, their trust in the district attorney's office had been eroded.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood, who presided over the hearing, allowed the lawyers to answer Sutton's questions despite numerous objections from Cline's attorney, James Van Camp of Pinehurst.

The scope of the hearing on Cline's conduct should be limited strictly to Cline's statements and shouldn't include others' comments or interpretations of how the public's perception may have changed in recent months, Van Camp said. The judge alone should decide whether Cline's conduct has brought Durham's courthouse into disrepute, he argued.

But Hobgood said he would allow the testimony strictly for the purposes of demonstrating the media coverage and public interest the issue has generated.

In addition to the lawyers, Sutton called two court clerks and a jury consultant, David Ball, of Durham. Ball testified that the public's perception of judges and attorneys affects how juries decide cases. "If you undermine the confidence in the [district attorney's] office, obviously you make it harder for the [district attorney] to get just convictions, because jurors are going to sit there a little more skeptical of what that office is doing," said Ball, who said he has worked as a consultant in criminal and civil cases for more than 20 years.

"If you don't have confidence in the people bringing the accusations, the rest of the system falls apart. If you don't have confidence in the person delivering the law to the jury, the rest of the system falls apart and justice becomes a crapshoot," Ball said.

Ball testified that he has supported the district attorney's office but no longer had confidence in it, based on what he has learned about the feud between Cline and Hudson.

Hobgood adjourned the hearing until Friday at 9:30 a.m., when Cline's attorneys will have the opportunity to present their evidence and call witnesses.

If Hobgood decides to remove Cline, she would be only the second district attorney in North Carolina to be fired through this type of administrative hearing, which is outlined in state law. The only district attorney who has been removed under this law was Jerry Spivey of New Hanover County, said Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. Spivey was removed after a 1995 incident in which he used a racial slur to address another patron at a Wrightsville Beach bar. If Cline loses her job, she may appeal.

As people cleared the courtroom, Cline walked over to Ball. The two embraced. Pulling back, Cline patted him on the shoulder. "Keep an open mind," she told him.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Control issues."

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