Twisted Truth

Former Durham district attorney Tracey Cline sues The News & Observer

Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline during a Dec. court appearance.
Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline during a Dec. court appearance.

Former Durham district attorney Tracey Cline sued The News & Observer this week, claiming the newspaper’s “Twisted Truth: A Prosecutor Under Attack” investigative series in 2011 twisted the truth about her.

In a complaint filed in Wake County Superior Court, Cline contends the N&O libeled her, causing physical harm, emotional trauma, loss of privacy, loss of reputation and standing in the community.

The former prosecutor was ousted from office in March after an unusual proceeding in which a judge found she made statements with malice and reckless disregard for the truth against Orlando Hudson, Durham’s chief resident superior court judge.

Cline’s stridently worded comments in court documents came after the N&O published a series of articles that highlighted prosecutions by her that were under scrutiny in various levels of the courts.

In an unusual challenge to a judge, Cline charged that Hudson had retaliated against her after she refused to drop a murder case tainted by questionable SBI crime lab reporting procedures.

Hudson dismissed the case, a ruling that was reversed this week by the state Court of Appeals, and Cline filed a series of court documents describing his action as “an extreme abuse of power” and the beginning of a “corrupt” smear campaign against her.

Cline contended then that Hudson was working in league with the N&O to “demean the district attorney at all costs.”

In her lawsuit, Cline claimed the “Twisted Truth” series, published on Sept. 4, 5 and 6 of 2011, “contained completely false statements, partial facts coupled with false and or misleading information, facts omitting relevant and material information which would explain or present” her “in a positive light.”

Cline contended the newspaper began an attempt in the late fall or early winter of 2010 to gather negative information to use in a series to attack her credibility, character and reputation. She said she met with reporters and editors before publication to complain about previous stories “which,” she said, “inferred information that was not true or accurate,” but added that the “meeting was not fruitful.” She contended she provided the newspaper with “the facts and the supporting information or contacts to document the truth, which clearly contradicted the false and fabricated facts” but further contended the information was “totally ignored.”

John Drescher, the N&O’s executive editor, disagreed with Cline’s contentions.

Drescher, N&O publisher Orage Quarles, senior editor for investigations Steve Riley, reporters J. Andrew Curliss and Joseph Neff, and others are named in the lawsuit. “We stand by the series and all the follow-up coverage involving Tracey Cline,” Drescher said Friday. He described the coverage as “a public service,” not defamatory, pointing out that it won a national award for fairness in reporting.

“It’s proven to be a public service,” Drescher said. “Our reporting has been completely validated by the hearing to remove her from office.”

Cline has appealed the decision to oust her from elected office. She also awaits a disciplinary hearing before the State Bar, which oversees lawyers in North Carolina.

The Bar decided this week to delay the disciplinary hearing until after the state Court of Appeals decides her case, saying that details from the ouster hearings in March could play a major role in whether she keeps or loses her license to practice law.

Efforts to reach Cline or James Van Camp, the lawyer who represented her at the hearing, have been unsuccessful this week.

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