Court reverses judge's ruling for Mebane man who had woman's bones

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 19, 2013 

— Tracey Cline was ousted as District Attorney nearly a year ago because of her series of strident rebukes of Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson after rulings he made in several cases.

But the state Court of Appeals, for a second time, has found that Hudson had erred in one of his decisions that led to her complaints.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel ruled that Hudson was wrong in August 2011 when he dismissed a murder case against Michael Dorman, a man accused of killing a woman in Durham and carrying her remains in a backpack. The ruling, Cline’s attorneys contend, helps ground the former district attorney’s unusual reproach of a judge in her questions about Hudson’s legal decisions.

In his 2011 dismissal of the case, Hudson issued a 69-page order in which he accused the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, the Durham Police Department and the state medical examiner’s office of conspiring to destroy evidence and violating Dorman’s rights to a fair trial.

The appeals court judges on Tuesday sent the case back for trial, stating that Hudson erred by “prematurely concluding the defendant’s ability to prepare a defense was so irreparably prejudiced that a dismissal of the charge… was the only appropriate remedy.”

The Dorman case was one of three that Cline mentioned in a series of court documents filed in 2011 that were the underpinnings of a rare legal process used to remove her from elected office.

Cline described Hudson’s dismissal of the Dorman case and others as “an extreme abuse of power” and the beginning of a “corrupt” smear campaign against her. She said Hudson had engaged in “moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption.”

Cline contended that Hudson was working in league with The News & Observer to “demean the district attorney at all costs.” The N&O published “Twisted Truth: A Prosecutor Under Attack,” a 2011 investigative series that highlighted prosecutions by Cline that were under scrutiny in various levels of the courts.

Patrick Mincey, one of Cline’s attorneys, said Tuesday that the appeals court ruling on Dorman appeared to be another example that helped “define a cascading series of events and the underlying circumstances in which Ms. Cline so famously spoke out [about].”

Cline has appealed her removal from office to the same Court of Appeals. Her lawyers were sharply questioned during arguments last week.

A strange case

Dorman’s case was unusual from the start. The 34-year-old man was arrested in July 2010 in Orange County after law enforcement officers say they intercepted him trying to hand off a backpack containing bones to another man.

Dorman’s acquaintance told police that Dorman claimed he shot the woman with a shotgun, according to police records.

After a brief investigation, Orange County investigators determined that a crime likely had occurred in Durham and turned the case over to police there.

Dorman was initially charged with concealing bones. Eventually, the charge was upgraded and he was accused of murdering Lakiea Lacole Boxley, 31, who had been reported missing in Durham in 2008.

An autopsy determined that Boxley, who had been missing since March 2008, might have been shot in the head. Dorman told investigators in one interview that he only found the remains and planned to use them for his sexual gratification, according to court documents.

The man who alerted Orange County law enforcement officers told investigators that Dorman told him that he put a shotgun to the woman’s head after she refused to have sex with him and the gun went off accidentally.

Dorman, according to the informant, kept the remains at his father’s house until July 2010, when he loaded portions of the body into a backpack.

Boxley’s family cremated her remains shortly after Dorman was indicted, a move that sparked complaints against the district attorney and police by the defense team.

Dorman’s lawyers had asked that all evidence in the murder investigation be preserved – a standard request in many Durham County cases. But the defense had not specified an interest in the remains until after the medical examiner already had released the bones to the family and cremation had occurred.

Dorman had not been to trial when Hudson issued his ruling, nor had the defendant entered a guilty plea. “Thus any harm to Defendant is either speculative or moot,” the three-judge panel stated in its ruling.

Allen in jail

The Dorman ruling comes almost five months after the state Court of Appeals ruled that Hudson had no legal basis for ordering the release of Derrick Michael Allen, a man accused of sexually assaulting and killing a 2-year-old girl in Durham.

Allen’s murder case acquired statewide prominence when it became entangled with two major criminal justice story lines – the inner workings of the SBI crime lab and the ouster of Cline. The Allen case was among about 200 identified in a state-ordered audit that said blood tests done by the SBI crime lab were not accurately or fully presented in court trials.

In the 2011 motions that led to her removal from office, Cline contended that Hudson had demanded she drop the Allen case because it had been tainted by questionable SBI crime lab reporting procedures. Cline accused Hudson of responding to her refusal to drop the case by arbitrarily dismissing it and setting Allen free after 12 years behind bars.

In the brief period following his release, Allen was arrested and accused of other crimes. He is incarcerated now and being evaluated for his mental competence to stand trial, according to court officials.

Mincey, the Wilmington lawyer representing Cline’s challenge of her ouster from office, said the appeals court’s two rulings help show why Cline spoke out so stridently. Hudson had said that Cline’s office deliberately violated the rights of Allen and Dorman.

“I contend these opinions are evidence contrary to a conclusion that Tracey’s speech ‘was so inherently improbable that only a reckless person would have put them in circulation,’ which is the standard to show malice,” Mincey said.

Hudson said Tuesday that he did not think the appeals court rulings would have an impact on the March 2012 ruling that ousted Cline from office. Judge Robert Hobgood found that Cline “brought the office of the Durham County District Attorney and the entire Durham County justice system into disrepute.”

“Judge Hobgood said she was removed because of her actions, not my actions,” Hudson said Tuesday.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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