Suspended District Attorney Tracey Cline testified in her own defense Friday

Suspended Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline took the witness stand in her own defense Friday, as she testified in a hearing that will determine whether she may stay in office.

Last fall, Cline wrote several long court filings accusing Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson of judicial misconduct. She said he was acting on a personal agenda against her instead of working in the interest of victims of crime and the justice system. On Friday, the fourth day of hearings on her removal, Cline defended the long filings regarding Hudson, which used fiery language that several witnesses have characterized as “inflammatory.”

“What I said in those motions is absolutely true,” Cline said. “How I said it could have been better.”

Over several hours, Cline described the interactions she had with Hudson over the past year, both in court and in administrative matters, such as scheduling cases for court. Cline, 48, said she has had a good relationship with Hudson since they met in the mid-1990s, before Cline came to work in Durham. He has been a mentor and role model, and although they haven’t always agreed, she has understood his reasoning and application of the law.

Things changed, she said, when Hudson recommended that Cline dismiss charges against Derrick Allen, a man who had served prison time in connection with the 1998 sexual assault and killing of a 2-year-old girl. Allen’s conviction was one of numerous cases being reexamined because, a state report found, some reports by forensic examiners at the State Bureau of Investigation may have been incomplete in some cases, and some excluded evidence that might have helped defendants.

When Cline refused to dismiss the Allen case, Hudson dismissed the case himself, and issued an order saying Cline, former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, and an SBI investigator intentionally misrepresented evidence in the case. Cline denies the judge’s findings and spoke with Hudson several times about what he wrote about her, and he repeatedly told her that his findings placed the emphasis on Black and the SBI agent, and their wrongdoing, but that as an assistant to Black, she, too, was responsible. She considered asking Hudson to amend his order to exclude her from culpability, but says she didn’t follow through.

“I knew in my heart what I had done, and had not done. So I let it go,” Cline said on the witness stand.

But tensions continued to build as Hudson ruled against Cline and her prosecutors in several key cases, including criticisms of Cline’s compliance with discovery laws. Then, last fall, The (Raleigh) News & Observer ran a series of critical articles on Cline, and Cline believed Hudson had been a source for the newspaper to discredit her. He also rearranged court dates, which complicated the ability of her office to operate efficiently. There came a point where Cline says Hudson wouldn’t talk to her, nor would he respond to other attorneys she sent to the judge to help mediate.

So, Cline said, she contacted various administrative agencies, including the attorney general’s office, to see what her options were. She filed a complaint with the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, then also gathered her staff and told them what she was about to do—to file motions to prohibit Hudson from presiding over her cases because he was biased against her.

She told them it was something she “must do,” she recalled. “It won’t be the best thing for me as a politician,” she said, “but it will be the best thing for me morally. I cannot tell my staff to actively seek justice, and I’m afraid.”

Cline said she “knew it was going to be rough.” But, she told Judge Robert Hobgood on Friday, everything in those motions was true, and she still believes not dismissing the Allen case was “the right thing to do.”

Cline said she still cares for Hudson, and harbors no animosity for Durham attorney Kerry Sutton, who filed the petition last month requesting that Cline be removed from office. Prior to making the request, Sutton announced she was running for a position on the state Senate, in a new district that includes Durham, Person and Caswell counties.

On Monday, Sutton and her team will begin cross-examining Cline at 9:30 a.m.

Hobgood ultimately will decide whether Cline is reinstated as district attorney, or whether she loses her job.