Crime

Ex-Durham DA Tracey Cline tells Bar panel motives for actions that led to ouster

Former Durham district attorney Tracey Cline talks during a break in her disciplinary hearing at the N.C. State Bar offices in Raleigh on Thursday.
Former Durham district attorney Tracey Cline talks during a break in her disciplinary hearing at the N.C. State Bar offices in Raleigh on Thursday. cseward@newsobserver.com

Tracey Cline was lingering in a hallway of the stately N.C. State Bar building on Thursday, taking a breather from a courtroom where three of her peers in the legal profession will decide the future of her law career.

Three years have passed since Cline was ousted from the Durham District Attorney’s office, and the former prosecutor said in the hallway that some of that time had been extremely tough for her.

On Thursday, Cline tried to explain motives behind the 2011 actions that led to her removal to the three lawyers on the disciplinary hearing commission panel that will determine to what measure she is punished for her misconduct.

The panel has already found that she violated professional conduct rules related to statements she made against Orlando Hudson, Durham’s chief resident superior court judge.

It was comments she included in court documents seeking the removal of Hudson from several cases that thrust her into a rarely used legal process.

Though Cline tried on several occasions at the Thursday state bar hearing to talk about what led her to the point of including such statements in court documents, the hearing panel steered her back toward a very narrow question.

A bar complaint brought against Cline in May 2012 contends the then-district attorney was out of line when directing her investigator in September 2011 to obtain confidential prison visitation records of three inmates featured in an investigative series published by The News & Observer around that time. The investigator told prison officials he needed the records because the inmates were attacking their convictions through a legal procedure known as a motion for appropriate relief. None of the inmates had filed such motions. One of them did so later.

Cline then persuaded Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin to order the prison system to release the records. After The N&O reported on the errors and false statements in Cline’s court filings, Hardin publicly admonished Cline for making false statements to him.

The bar contends that Cline knowingly made “false representations” about the need for the records, saying the visitation records were irrelevant to any issues the inmates might raise.

Cline, who contended otherwise, called Durham attorney Heather Rattelade to the witness stand on Thursday to provide the disciplinary panel with details about court filings in one of the cases that raised questions about her conduct. Rattelade testified Thursday that she had sealed a filing in one of the cases without a judge’s order, and Cline contended it was a document that included dozens of pages of prosecutorial conduct allegations that she claims were not supported by fact.

Cline testified on Thursday that after those allegations appeared in the N&O series, she tried to find out more about them, but was unsuccessful with Rattelade and Judge Hudson.

“When I read the article, I thought there had to be some miscommunication,” Cline told the panel on Thursday. “It became a daily drill of trying to find out what was going on.”

Cline said she knew some of the information that was included in the investigator’s request, but that he had included details and statements that she said on Thursday she never made.

Cline, whose motions in court some times include misspellings and grammatical mistakes, said the title of the motion should have included only the name of one of the inmates, not all three in the series.

In seeking the information, Cline told the bar panel, she was looking for details to help her argue against the inmate’s attempt to win release from prison or a new trial.

Cline said she did not “act with malice, intention to hurt anybody” or “to mislead anybody.”

Margaret Cloutier, one of two lawyers bringing the misconduct charges for the state bar, argued otherwise. She contended Cline was trying to find out who was visiting the inmates without their attorneys knowing. On Friday, the bar panel will announce its findings.

Blythe: 919-836-4948;

Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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