Local News

Durham DA's fate in judge's hands

Posted February 29, 2012 7:59 a.m. EST
Updated February 29, 2012 11:02 p.m. EST

— The future of Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline's career rests in a judge's hands following the conclusion Wednesday of a rare inquiry into whether she should be removed from office.

"I have a lot to mull over, a lot to consider," Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said, noting he wouldn't rule on the matter before Friday.

Hobgood suspended Cline last month, pending the four-day inquiry, saying there was probable cause to support the notion that she had "brought the office of the Durham County District Attorney and the entire Durham County justice system into disrepute."

Durham attorney Kerry Sutton filed an affidavit last month accusing Cline of improper conduct following Cline's repeated attacks on Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson in recent months.

Cline has alleged in court filings that Hudson is biased against her and her office and asked to have him barred from handling criminal cases in Durham County. Two other judges have found her complaints to be groundless. 

"The context, the subtext, the tone, the tenor (of her comments) is simply unacceptable," Sutton said in her closing argument Wednesday. "We cannot accept that as appropriate behavior from any attorney, let alone an elected district attorney."

Cline testified over two days that she felt she had no choice but to file motions against Hudson, saying his attitude toward her changed in late 2010 after she refused to dismiss a murder case in which man was challenging how state crime lab analysts handled blood evidence.

Hudson dismissed the case anyway and accused Cline in his written order of withholding evidence from the defense attorney. She denies the allegation.

After that, she said, he would repeatedly move cases around on the criminal court docket, making it difficult for prosecutors to prepare. He also dismissed another murder case last year and accused her of conspiring with police and state authorities to destroy evidence. She denies that allegation as well.

"You think I want to be in this position?" Cline asked Monday while undergoing cross-examination. "I did everything I could. It came to a point where, if this continued to happen, it wasn't justice."

Defense attorney Patrick Mincey argued that the case should be dismissed because the state law that allows the effort to remove Cline from office violates her free speech rights. Hobgood said he would reserve judgment on that argument but dismissed another defense motion to toss the case because the law is too vague to be enforced.

Fellow defense attorney James Van Camp said in his closing argument said Cline was only trying to do what she thought was right. If she had remained silent, he said, she might have been removed from office for not doing her job properly.

Sutton countered that Cline was trying to intimidate Hudson into playing by her rules and noted that she has publicly stated she would continue to battle with him "at all costs."

"If you return Ms. Cline to office and end this suspension, this conflict will continue until one of them loses," she said.

Allowing Cline to remain in office also would send a bad message to people statewide, Sutton argued.

"We'll be telling all of our judges in North Carolina that the bar has been set, and they have to accept undignified, discourteous and degrading abuse from prosecutors who don't like their rulings," she said. "We'll be telling the citizens of Durham and the entire state that this is the level of respect and courtesy that they should have for the entire judicial system."