Three men want to become Durham’s district attorney, an office that has seen its last two elected occupants – Mike Nifong and Tracey Cline – removed for professional misconduct.
After Cline’s removal, former Superior Court Judge Leon Stanback was appointed to serve out Cline’s term. He chose to return to retirement rather than run for election to a full term.
Stanback’s chief assistant, Roger Echols; former assistant DA Mitchell Garrell; and Durham attorney Brian Aus are Democrats, with the winner in the May 6 primary (and a June 24 runoff if necessary) going onto the general election Nov. 4. No other political party has a candidate for district attorney this year.
In Durham the district attorney has a staff of more than 30, including 18 assistant DAs; the salary is set and paid by the state, currently $127,737 according to the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.
MSPH, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1979
JD, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1985
There will be no such thing as “good enough for government work” when it comes to performance by the district attorney’s office or law enforcement agencies. Our job is not merely to get convictions, but to assure that justice is done for all, regardless of race, gender or social class, as there is no value in a conviction procured by unethical or unprofessional conduct. The district attorney’s staff therefore will be highly trained, professional, ethical, compassionate and transparent in their actions. I will oversee and train my staff to assure that any misconduct such as alleged in the Howard case does not occur. I will personally discuss and attempt to solve investigative and training issues with the sheriff and chief of police. The DA’s office will be present at major crime scenes to assess the evidence when it is fresh and not merely rely on written reports. I will completely reorganize the district attorney’s office to make it responsive to the needs of law enforcement and efficiently utilize court time to the benefit of all.
Q: Please describe one specific event in your legal career that influenced your decision to run for district attorney.
JD, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1994
I believe that the most immediate source of this distrust are the circumstances of the removal of our last district attorney from office. Ms. Cline engaged in a concerted and extended attack on our Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson. Among her charges, contained within motions filed in court, was that Judge Hudson had repeatedly “raped” victims. She continued to file these motions even after being ordered by more than one Superior Court Judge to cease and desist unless she had evidence to support her charges.
The prevention of such a loss of trust is the very reason that there are established procedures such as filing a complaint with the Judicial Standards Commission (to be confidential until and unless substantiated) and the appellate process, available for such serious charges. I will not always agree with every judge’s rulings, but I will respect the judicial system and abide by the laws and procedures available when disagreements as to rulings arise. The removal of Ms. Cline from office has not fully restored the trust lost during this period of attack; there are still those in the district attorney’s office who fully and publicly supported Ms. Cline in her attacks, and nowhere has there been the public admission of the seriousness of the mistakes made, much less the actions required to heal the damage done. One of my opponents was hired by Ms. Cline during the height of the attacks; in fact he was hired to replace me, and did replace me after a well-publicized court hearing in which certain irregularities in discovery procedures was brought to light.
A clean break from the Cline era is required in order to begin the process of restoring public trust in the criminal justice system. As was stated in a Washington Post opinion piece “(i)t is hard not to notice that Durham voters will be choosing between a guy that Cline hired, and a guy that she fired – after he helped expose some of her mistakes. And given his platform, it’s certainly safe to say that Garrell would be a break from the past.”
I would begin the process of restoring trust by pledging to meet with attorneys who, acting in good faith, have reasonable concerns about the integrity of a criminal conviction in Durham County, and, if there is a rational basis for their concerns, allow them to review the file maintained in the district attorney’s office. Should they, by means of this process, or otherwise, discover or provide evidence calling into question the legitimacy of the conviction, I would join with them in requesting appropriate actions by the appropriate court. I would assign an assistant district attorney, as part of their duties, to assess cases in which the integrity of the conviction is called into question.
In addition, I would hold monthly open forums in which I would make myself available to any members of the public who have questions or concerns regarding the actions or practices of the District Attorney’s Office.
Seeing all of this, it was clear to me that the most powerful antidote to this poisonous atmosphere available to me was to once again run for DA, this time against Roger Echols. Judge Stanback is to be commended for answering the call of Gov. Perdue to assume the office of district attorney in the wake of Cline’s removal. His job was to restore stability to a chaotic situation and he did. This job, perhaps by its nature, did not entail replacing those in the office who had publicly and vocally supported Cline in her ill-fated campaign of character assassination against Judge Hudson. The only way for Durham to begin the process of restoring trust in its criminal justice system is to make a clean break from the past, and it was this that led me to run for DA.
For the first 10 years or so of my career, I would have worked for free had I been able to (as it was, this is not a career that you choose for riches, particularly in the first decade). I got up each morning, generally seven mornings a week, eager to get to work and, as I once heard an older prosecutor say, “put up the State’s case.” While two children, church and community involvement, and important relationships have somewhat altered my focus, I still feel this way today and I would like to be able to inspire that enthusiasm in every ADA in the office.