Saunders

Saunders: Bar set low for next Durham DA

Staff WriterMarch 3, 2012 

No need to consult Sister Betty, the borderline psychic, South Raleigh soothsayer, to know that the next Durham County district attorney will be the best the county has seen in more than a decade.

All she or he will have to do is serve out a complete term untainted by scandal, something neither of the previous two elected DAs has been able to do.

District Attorney Mike Nifong was disbarred in 2007 over ethics violations in the Duke lacrosse case.

His elected successor, Tracey Cline, was removed Friday when Judge Robert H. Hobgood found that she had brought her office into "disrepute."

A News & Observer series last year focused on cases in which Cline's office apparently withheld evidence or made misstatements in court in forging ahead on prosecutions. Cline said it was a suggestion or demand from Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson that she drop a murder prosecution that caused her to conclude - loudly and persistently - that Hudson was out to get her, that he was acting as a monarch and that his decisions were "raping" - yes, raping - crime victims in the county.

Ouch.

I don't know what happened to Cline when she became the head honcho, but as an assistant DA, she seemed to be everything "We the People" could want representing us in court. It was more than a decade ago, when Cline as assistant DA, represented "me, the people" after some night-skulking skunk broke into my house while my then 10-year-old son and I were in bed. Cline personified professionalism and commitment - even though she did get angry at me for showing sympathy toward the defendant from the witness stand and possibly causing the jury to go easy on him.

It was around midnight on Labor Day. I walked downstairs to get a bowl of Cap'n Crunch - the ones with Crunch Berries because I was on a health food kick back then - when I confronted the burglar with my stereo, my Z.Z. Hill Greatest Hits CD collection and other valuable stuff stacked by the front door.

"Pardon me, old bean, but what are you doing in my house and where, oh where, are you going with my stuff?" I asked, although maybe not in those exact words.

His immortal reply: "But I knocked three times."

On the witness stand, he was even less convincing. The burglar said he was visiting a friend who'd lived at the house several years earlier and assumed he - the mythical friend - was upstairs. Cline, in a piece of lawyer work that would've had Perry Mason applauding, had apparently researched building permits and coolly noted that the upstairs section of the house hadn't been built years ago. Heck, I didn't even know that.

Dude did a dime - that's prison lingo for a 10-year sentence - but he could've gotten life as a habitual felon had I not gotten on the stand and, in Cline's words, acted like a soft-hearted punk.

Tell the truth, now. That's what we want in a prosecutor, right? Someone who'll be aggressive in going after the bad guys and who'll do anything within the law to put them away? Someone, even, who'll be intemperate toward a judge if she thinks he is giving short shrift to the public's safety?

The problem, though, is Cline hasn't always played by the rules lawyers must play by, and that raises doubts about some of the convictions she's won.

Oh yeah: If you accuse a judge of rape - even figurative rape - you'd better have proof.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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