Durham DA finds her own court of public opinion

N&O editor attends meeting to defend Durham DA stories

staff writerSeptember 15, 2011 

— District Attorney Tracey Cline on Wednesday agreed to air her complaints about a recent News & Observer series in a neutral public forum at N.C. Central University Law School.

Cline was the subject of a three-part series, "Twisted Truth: A Prosecutor Under Fire," which focused on cases in which Cline's conduct is under scrutiny in various levels of the courts.

Cline had invited the reporter who wrote the series to a "town hall meeting" at the Durham Courthouse. Executive Editor John Drescher represented the newspaper Wednesday evening. At the meeting, Cline and Drescher agreed to discuss the series in a neutral forum with a professional moderator. Cline said she would contact the dean of the NCCU law school.

The turnout Wednesday evening was small - about two dozen people, a third of them reporters or TV cameramen, in a courtroom in a locked courthouse.

The meeting started at 5:30 p.m., a half-hour after the courthouse was closed for the day.

Sheriff's deputies in charge of courthouse security said they knew nothing about the meeting and had made no arrangements to let people in after hours, so it's unclear whether people who wanted to attend were locked out.

Those who did attend, other than media, were supportive of Cline.

"Thank you for serving the citizens of Durham," said the Rev. Melvin Whitley, a neighborhood activist. "We're behind you. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Cline made a long defense of herself, often emotional, at times echoing themes from the final arguments she made before juries in the cases.

Cline called the articles "character assassination" and complained about the name of the series.

"Twisted Truth, Twisted Truth, that is really wrong," she said. "This is not right."

Cline had made many of the same points in email exchanges with the N&O before and after publication of the series.

At Cline's request, the newspaper has posted all those exchanges online, as well as the audio of two interviews with the district attorney.

Specific complaints

Cline brought up a few factual complaints. For example, Cline criticized the Sept. 4 story that focused on her handling of the case of Frankie Washington.

"The story says I testified in front of a jury? Never happened."

The trial transcript indicates otherwise. The jury was called into the courtroom, Cline took the stand, testified and stepped down.

The jury was later dismissed.

At the meeting, Drescher defended the series as "really good journalism" based entirely on court records, sworn testimony and on-the record interviews.

"There was no anonymous person making charges against Tracey Cline," Drescher said.

The newspaper requested that Cline detail her concerns about the series in writing.

Cline said Wednesday she is working on her response.

jneff@newsobserver.com or 829-4516

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