Here Durham went again

jwise@newsobserver.comMarch 3, 2012 

For Durham, the Tracey Cline affair has come at a bad time, and it has a powerful element of déjà vu.

With Mayor Bill Bell having made crime reduction Durham's Job One, the county's top prosecutor has now been permanently removed from office.

And it's not the first time Durham has faced such a situation. Cline initially got the job in a special election after former DA Mike Nifong was forced out and disbarred.

"It's sad, and it's tragic," City Councilman Eugene Brown said. "It has not put Durham's best foot forward. ... I think within the judicial system and particularly among Durham attorneys, there is probably a sigh of relief - along with a disbelief - in what's happened."

Added acting DA Leon Stanback, a retired judge, "It's a sad day for Durham for having to go through this. But you put one foot in front of the other, and you move on. You can't change the past."

Durham is a city of about 250,000 people. According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, its 2010 rate of violent crime - 690 instances per 100,000 residents - is above the national (403.6 per 100,000) and state (363.4) averages. Durham's rate is below that of some similar-size cities, such as Richmond, Va., (731) and Chattanooga, Tenn. (903).

Durham also has a historic reputation for violence that was reaffirmed in 2011 by several dramatic homicides, including the drive-by murder of a teenage girl playing outside her family's apartment. In December, after Durham's 26th homicide of the year, a frustrated Bell said he wanted "a new direction" in fighting violent crime. In his Feb. 6 "State of the City" address, he made crime reduction his top priority for 2012.

Cline had a reputation for being tough in prosecuting crime. Michael Page, chairman of Durham's Board of County Commissioners, said Cline had been a good leader and that her dismissal is unfortunate. Kim Griffin, a real-estate broker and former city councilman, said he thinks "the pressure of the job got to her."

But Cline, like Nifong, saw her zeal outrun sound judgment and the law.

"You can't go by your own rules," said Dan Hill, a businessman and former city councilman who has waged a personal campaign to improve Durham's system of justice and uplift its troubled neighborhoods. "You have to go by the rules that are there."

Nifong's ouster

Cline was elected in 2008 after Nifong's improper prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players accused of raping an exotic dancer. State Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed the charges and declared the players innocent.

Durham still faces a lawsuit over the lacrosse case, as well as the prospect of another well-publicized case coming out of its past: In December, Cline was unable to prevent a new trial for Michael Peterson, a Durham novelist convicted in 2003 of murdering his wife, Kathleen.

The judge who granted Peterson's request was Orlando Hudson, the same judge whom Cline had sought to have barred from criminal cases in Durham. How to handle that case, and whether to prosecute Peterson again at all, remain to be determined.

Also to be determined is the district attorney's role in Durham's new initiatives on crime reduction and prevention. In January, Bell described several "strategies." One of them is "a better approach to communicating and coordinating between the District Attorney's Office, the judges and law enforcement."

Stanback said he has already been working closely with Bell on several crime-fighting initiatives, but he did not intend to announce them publicly.

'A disconnect'

A lack of communication and coordination in Durham's criminal justice system has been a recognized weakness for a long time, according to community activists.

"We've been saying for years there's a disconnect," said Melvin Whitley, a minister and community organizer in the depressed, crime-ridden neighborhoods east of Durham's reviving downtown. Whitley, Bell, Hill and others have long complained of a "revolving door" syndrome that sees suspects repeatedly arrested, jailed and bonded out.

"When it's time to prosecute them, they're back out on the street," Whitley said. "These judges don't live in our neighborhoods, and they can't possibly know the impact they have in our community when they let these people go."

The "syndrome" was a factor in one of Durham's more dramatic cases of 2011, when a murder suspect was arrested for bank robbery while out on $100,000 bail. Hudson had lowered the bail from $200,000 after another judge had lowered it from Hudson's original $500,000.

Such instances have only strengthened an image Durham's boosters have found difficult to dispel, despite the city's almost routine appearances on various "Best Places to ... " lists. Durham's median household income is near that of the nation as a whole, and 44 percent of residents have college degrees, but it also has a high rate of poverty that has persisted for decades.

The DA's importance

Durham's violent-crime rate has trended down, from 728 instances per 100,000 people in 2005 to 690 in 2010. Still, that rate is above those of Winston-Salem (651), Greensboro (588) and Raleigh (415). And Durham's chief agency for prosecuting criminal suspects has been in turmoil for months.

"The district attorney's office, in my mind, is the most important elective office in Durham," Hill said. "It may not be that way in some other communities, but it is in Durham."

Nifong's and Cline's tenures have been "a debacle," Hill said, though he said he is sympathetic to Cline for the zeal with which she prosecuted suspects.

Durham citizens need to pay more attention to who gets voted into the job, Hill said - someone who is committed to fairness but willing "to go after the people who make life difficult."

After being elected to fill Nifong's term in 2008, Cline was unopposed in 2010.

"We've got to have a DA that everybody in the community respects," Hill said, "who would go after the bad guys and obey the rules."

But cutting crime and improving Durham's criminal-justice system require more than a good district attorney, according to Whitley.

"Whoever becomes DA is going to have the same problems. They're going to have to stand in front of the judges," he said. "The justice system is broken, ... and it's been broken for a long time."

Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss contributed to this report.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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