Three Triangle-area attorneys testified in a Durham courtroom Monday that the actions and media coverage of embattled District Attorney Tracey Cline have caused them to lose confidence in Durham's justice system.
Lawyers across the state are talking about the public accusations Cline has made against Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, said Staples Hughes, the N.C. Appellate Defender.
“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. Cline’s behavior is the subject of discussion among lawyers, including some Hughes said he spoke with during a recent trip to Charlotte.
“It is regarded that she’s simply, for whatever reason, completely out of control,” Hughes said.
Cline’s actions could cost her job, maybe even her career. Durham defense attorney Kerry Sutton filed a petition last month to have Cline removed from office because of her widely publicized conflict with Hudson, in which she has accused him of plotting with a defense attorney to ruin her reputation. The N.C. State Bar is also examining Cline’s conduct in a separate investigation.
Monday’s hearing was an opportunity for Sutton to bring forward evidence that Cline’s behavior has eroded public confidence in the Durham judicial system and brought it into disrepute.
For about an hour, Sutton had Hughes read excerpts from the hundreds of pages Cline has filed condemning Hudson’s conduct, questioning his character and objectivity and accusing him of retaliation against her by ruling against her in court. Cline has accused Hudson of creating “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 defend people charged with crimes.
As Hughes read the 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.
“For those who use this court for special situations outside the lines of right and wrong; Don’t hide your dirty hands,” Hughes said, reading Cline’s words aloud. “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, who said he had been an attorney 30 years, had never seen anything like it.
“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, they had lost trust in the office of the district attorney.
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. It was up to the judge to 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 that the issue has generated.
In additional to the lawyers, Sutton called two court clerks and a jury consultant, David Ball, of Durham. Ball testified that the public’s perception judges and attorneys affects how juries make decisions in the judicial system. About half of the American public doesn’t trust or think highly of judges, Ball said. And the public’s trust of court officials can change whether the courts can deliver justice.
“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. That’s why it’s so important that we’ve made the changes that we have in Durham over the past few years,” 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 becomes a crapshoot,” Ball said. In his testimony, Ball said he has been a supporter of the district attorneys office, but no longer had confidence it based on what he has learned in recent months about the feud between Cline and Hudson.
After Ball’s testimony and a few administrative matters, Hobgood adjourned the hearing until Friday morning at 9:30 a.m., when Cline’s attorneys will have the opportunity to present their evidence and interview witnesses.
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,” Cline told him.
If Hobgood decides to remove Cline, she would be only the second district attorney in North Carolina to be removed by a judge through this type of administrative hearing. If Cline loses her job, she may appeal. The only district attorney who has been removed through a similar process outlined by state 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.