DA's private life to be focus of hearing

Tracey Cline

May 13, 2011 3:25:06 PM PDT
Is the private life of Durham District Attorney Tracy Cline of any importance in a murder trial? The defendant's legal team claims it is.

Now, a special hearing will look into it and the North Carolina State Bar is weighing in.

The case involves an alleged knife fight last July that left 23-year-old Tony Burns dead, his sister badly injured, and Robert Lyons near death.

ABC11 got vastly different versions of what happened from the surviving participants.

"She cut me across the chest and I tried to defend myself," said Lyons.

"You tried to cut my face off. You slit my throat. I don't understand self-defense," said Kateshia Burns.

Investigators say it was an argument over a lost cell phone that turned violent. All three were taken to the hospital, but Lyons says he was initially considered the victim by police.

"I don't know how I become the victim and then turn around and become the suspect, but that's what happened, and I've been locked up here ever since," he said.

Police notes from the defense team's motion show Lyons' status was changed from victim to suspect - something the district attorney's office says was a correction of a paperwork error. The defense team also alleges the lead investigator improperly authorized the release of Burns' pickup truck to his family instead of holding it in evidence.

It's because of that allegation that defense attorney Lisa Williams has raised questions about the DA Cline's private life. In a letter to the North Carolina Department of Justice, Williams claims Cline "refuses to disclose whether she has had or currently has a sexual relationship with the arresting officer" - who is also the lead investigator.

"If they were going together and stuff, then he shouldn't be on the case," said Lyons. "Legally, I think that's an injustice."

It's such a touchy subject that Senior Resident Judge Orlando Hudson recused himself and requested an outside judge determine if there's a relationship and if it's relevant.

In a statement to ABC11 earlier this week, Cline said: "Several weeks ago, it came to my attention that allegations of police misconduct were being made because a single key to a vehicle was returned to the mother whose son was murdered and a police officer placed the wrong name in the suspect box on some paperwork. I have known the lead investigator in this case over 10 years and have found him to be a credible and trustworthy person, both professionally and personally."

Cline also said that even though there's no misconduct, she decided to allow the Attorney General Special Prosecutions Division to handle the situation to avoid any suggestions the state is being biased or unfair.

ABC11 has also learned that this is not the first time Cline's personal life has come up.

According to the state bar, Cline contacted their office "when she was an assistant district attorney to ask whether she could engage in a romantic relationship with a police officer while continuing to serve as an ADA. At that time, she was advised that it is not a conflict of interest for an ADA to date a police officer if the ADA is able to continue to provide competent and diligent representation to the State. She was told that the only potential problem is that the credibility of the police officer might be challenged during cross examination because of the romantic relationship. Therefore, it would be prudent for her not to be the prosecutor on cases in which the officer is a prospective witness."

The State Bar says Cline contacted them just last week, asking whether their advice still holds true now that she's an elected District Attorney. The State Bar said there was no conflict of interest and told her she wouldn't have to end the relationship or resign as DA.

Cline is not prosecuting the case herself. One of her assistant district attorneys is. Still, the defense wants to know if it's a conflict since ADAs work for Cline. The special hearing could be held as soon as the end of this month.

A judge outside of Durham will preside and a special prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office will represent the state. The judge will decide whether there is a relationship between Cline and the investigator and whether that’s relevant to the case.

ABC11 contacted the Attorney General's office which told us: "Because these matters are presently pending court resolution it would not be appropriate to comment any further."

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