Local News

Retired judge rebuilding battered Durham DA office

Posted June 27, 2012 4:38 p.m. EDT
Updated June 27, 2012 6:31 p.m. EDT

— Five months after being appointed to take the reins in the beleaguered Durham County District Attorney's Office, Leon Stanback says he has focused on rebuilding morale among prosecutors to restore public confidence in the office.

Stanback, who served as a Superior Court judge for 21 years before retiring in 2009, was on the golf course in late January when someone in Gov. Beverly Perdue's office called to ask him to serve as interim district attorney after District Attorney Tracey Cline had been suspended.

Cline had repeatedly accused Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson of being biased against her and making rulings in cases that violated victim's rights. Other judges determined her allegations to be unfounded, and she was removed from office in March.

She has appealed her removal. The North Carolina State Bar will consider whether she should face other discipline.

Cline's case marked the second time in five years that Durham County's top prosecutor was removed. In 2007, former District Attorney Mike Nifong was disbarred for his handling of rape accusations against members of Duke University's lacrosse team.

"The office wasn't in bad shape when you talk about the personnel," Stanback said Wednesday.

He said he immediately tried to boost morale in the office, implementing an open-door policy to listen to people's ideas and concerns. He hired more attorneys, allowed more prosecutors to try murder cases and recruited retirees as volunteers to help with some of the clerical work.

"I think the morale is very high. People walk around smiling now," he said. "Everything seems to be going very well. ... Credibility is something that you measure through other people's opinions."

Stanback is going through each pending case to determine what should move forward to trial. He said he relies on his experience on the bench as he reviews the circumstances in a case.

"I wouldn't take anything to a judge that I wouldn't want to receive as a judge," he said.

For example, he recently dismissed the charges against two members of a religious sect charged in the high-profile killings of a 4-year-old Durham boy and a woman. That followed the decision to allow the sect leader to plead guilty to two counts of murder in the case in exchange for prosecutors dropping plans to seek the death penalty against him.

Stanback hasn't tried any cases since taking office. He said he is still too busy with the administrative part of the job, and he is working to tie up loose ends in some older cases to clear them off the docket.

"I'm working with some cold cases, some cases that have happened in the past that we hope to have a break on in the next few months," he said.

If Cline's appeal is resolved by early September, an election will be held in November for a successor to fill the rest of her term, which runs through 2014. If it is still pending after September, an election won't be held until 2014, according to state law.

Either way, Stanback said, he is considering running for the office.

"Right now, I think so," he said, noting that he looks forward to coming to work every day and likes the district attorney's job more than he expected.