There were clear differences between the paths taken by Mike Nifong and Tracey Cline to their forced removal from office. Nifong was fundamentally corrupt, unethical to the core. An effective, if sometimes overly blatant, racial demagogue, he was motivated not by ideology but by pure personal advancement. If he had served as Durham DA in the 1950s, it’s easy to imagine him trying to frame innocent black students to appeal to racist sentiments among his white-majority electorate.
As to the performance of his duties: Nifong’s handling of the Mangum allegations could be used as a test for a legal ethics class, since he seemed intent on violating as many distinct ethical procedures as he possibly could in a single case. In this respect, his previous experience was particularly dangerous: he knew the rules well enough to know exactly what procedures needed to be overridden, and he had enough support on the bench (chiefly from Judge Ronald Stephens) to almost get away with it. A caricature of a small-town bully (a trait he ably demonstrated during his tenure at traffic court), he expected that he could live by his own rules, and defied anyone to try and stop him.
The great unknown of Nifong’s career is whether this type of misconduct led to him helping to convict any innocent people during his tenure as an ADA. His supporters never seemed interested in exploring this question.
Ideas did seem to matter to Cline. She made feints to anti-racism (with her seemingly baseless allegation of racism against an earlier employer—good enough to gain Victoria Peterson’s loyalty) and feminism (as ADA, she developed the deeply dangerous policy of allowing sex crimes cases to go to trial, regardless of the evidence, as long as the prosecutor believed the accuser). But as DA, Cline’s seemed mostly animated by an extreme version of victims’ rights, to the extent that she saw her office not as the “minister of justice” but as a victims’ advocate.
In Saturday’s N&O, Barry Saunders wrote that he had been a victim of a crime more than a decade ago, “when Cline as assistant DA, represented ‘me, the people’ after some night-skulking skunk broke into my house while my then 10-year-old son and I were in bed. Cline personified professionalism and commitment—even though she did get angry at me for showing sympathy toward the defendant from the witness stand and possibly causing the jury to go easy on him.”
But Cline was not supposed to have “represented” Saunders, or any victim of crime—as a district attorney, she was supposed to have represented the people. Did her inability to recognize this distinction account for her overly emotional (delusional?) response to Judge Hudson, with her claims that his decisions were “raping” the victims of crime? She certainly wasn’t helped by her obvious intellectual limitations. For a DA of a county Durham’s size to file motion after motion riddled with spelling and grammatical errors was simply embarrassing.
Cline, moreover, almost certainly obtained her position through prevarication. Amidst the 2008 primary campaign, as the N&O delicately put it, “Cline maintain[ed] that she had no involvement in the lacrosse case, although defense lawyers for the exonerated players and testimony from State Bar disciplinary proceedings against Nifong challenge that.”
We likely will never know the full extent of Cline’s involvement in the lacrosse case—she won’t even grant the N&O permission to release a tape of the off-the-record 2007 discussion she had on the case. Nifong, meanwhile, has every incentive to maintain the fiction, lest Cline appear as a witness against him in the civil suits. That Cline’s story strains credulity puts it mildly: to believe her requires accepting that after recommending the constitutionally-suspect NTO against all white lacrosse players, solely on the basis of their group identity, she had no subsequent involvement in the case—even though she was the office expert in sexual assault cases, and even though she worked alongside Nifong throughout the period (when the case was the talk of Durham), and even though she would have served as second chair during the trial.
That move sent quite a message about Cline’s commitment to integrity, but it was sadly consistent with the values of the office she was about to take over. A few months ago, a DIW commenter who said he had tried a few cases against Cline offered the following persuasive insight: “The culture of the Durham DA's office, as shown time and time again, is to win cases at all costs. Nifong and Cline built their careers in that office, and they both treat criminal cases as personal wars.”
This dismissive attitude toward legal ethics—and, indeed, to the truth—best manifested itself in the extraordinarily dubious judgment of Judge (and former Durham ADA) Marcia Morey. This sitting judge testified (not once, not twice, but three times) on behalf of the ethical standards of Nifong and Cline.
In New York, both the Times and the tabloids would have crucified a sitting judge who repeatedly placed the prestige of her office behind unethical prosecutors. In Durham, Morey’s conduct passed without editorial notice, and while such an approach could be expected from the hopelessly biased Independent, what can excuse the silence of the N&O editorial board and that of the post-Ashley H-S? Morey, it seems, represents The Durham Way, a fact so obvious that it appears it doesn’t even deserve a mention.
In a February interview with the Independent, Morey lamented, “Durham needs and deserves a better reputation." "I'm tired,” continued the Nifong/Cline ethics witness, “of going to meetings in other cities where people are saying, ‘There's always something going on in Durham.’”
With a sitting judge repeatedly testifying on behalf of unethical prosecutors, how could anyone in other cities think there's something wrong with what's going on in Durham?