Ex-defendant sues Cline, police, Durham

Staff WriterSeptember 22, 2011 

A Durham man who was set free by the state Court of Appeals over "repeated neglect" by Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday against the prosecutor, the police officers who handled his case, and the city of Durham.

Frankie Washington alleges that the authorities who put him behind bars for nearly three years acted in "bad faith." The officers and Cline concealed evidence, the lawsuit alleges, and conspired to violate his rights under the state and U.S. constitutions.

Cline and the police had a "reckless and callous disregard of public justice in this State," says the lawsuit, filed in Durham County Superior Court.

Washington also accuses Cline of libel and slander, based on allegedly "false" comments she has made in recent weeks to the news media about Washington's case and her certainty of his guilt. Washington's case was highlighted in the recent three-part News & Observer series "Twisted Truth," which focused on misstatements by Cline and evidence withheld from defendants.

Washington seeks more than money: The lawsuit requests greater oversight of the Durham Police Department.

Washington asks a judge to appoint an independent police "monitor" with the power to hire and fire all police officials.

Many cities have used police monitors, typically a person installed with oversight of the agency. Monitors typically have been put in place amid troubling patterns of police conduct.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Robert Ekstrand and Stefanie Sparks of Durham, also seeks the creation of a three-member police review board, appointed by the court, that would report to the monitor about complaints of police misconduct lodged by citizens. Currently, Durham has a nine-member board that reviews how police conduct internal reviews after complaints are made. That board reports to the city manager.

City will review

Mayor Bill Bell said in an interview that he would discuss the lawsuit and the broad remedies it seeks with other city officials and council members. Bell said the city would consider taking its own steps if necessary and would not wait on a court order.

Cline could not be reached for a response. Prosecutors typically receive broad immunity from civil suits based on their role within the legal system. It is not clear from the lawsuit, other than the claims of libel and slander, how Washington would be able to sue the district attorney.

A police spokeswoman wrote in an email message in July that the police department "feels confident in the quality of the investigation involving Frankie Washington."

In seeking an outside monitor, the lawsuit cites wrongful prosecutions in Durham, including three players who were on the Duke University lacrosse team and were charged in an alleged gang rape. Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the three players innocent in 2007, about two months after Washington's conviction by a jury.

A delay in testing

Washington, a Durham handyman, was convicted of robbery and attempted sexual assault in February 2007 on testimony from victims that he had been the masked attacker who was in their house. The victims, sitting in a police car 20 feet away, identified him the night of the attack.

The appeals court said it was troubled by the "show-up" eyewitness procedure that led to Washington's arrest. Cline, in an interview, has said she was not concerned with what happened and is certain that Washington is guilty.

Washington, who claimed all along that he was innocent, sought to have evidence that was collected at the time of the crime tested against his own DNA and fingerprints.

Cline did not submit the evidence for years, then testified in the trial and told a judge in a hearing that the delays were the result of a backlog at the state crime lab.

The appeals court found otherwise, ruling that Cline was in control of the testing. When the evidence was finally tested, none of it matched Washington, but he was convicted anyway.

His conviction was vacated because he did not get a speedy trial. The case took almost five years from arrest to trial.

Another issue in Washington's case was a possible alternate suspect, a man who had been committing similar crimes in a similar fashion in the same neighborhood. Cline has not tested the evidence against anyone else, including that man, Lawrence Hawes. Hawes said in an interview that DNA and other forensics would not match him.

Washington's lawsuit alleges that Cline and the police knew that testing the evidence against others would reveal a match with Hawes. The lawsuit cites no basis for that allegation, and it is not clear from a review of the case records whether that would be the case.

acurliss@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4840

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