Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline, who replaced infamous Duke lacrosse prosecutor Mike Nifong; put at least one innocent man (and likely more) in prison; alleged a vast conspiracy against her between a state judge, defense attorneys, and the News & Observer newspaper; and (most importantly!) took runner-up in the 2011 Agitator.com Worst Prosecutor of the Year Award . . . has been removed from office.
She was a prosecutor who would not back down from anyone. She acted with fierce conviction when she believed she was right. She was aggressive, too, and often framed her pursuit of justice as advocacy for crime victims.
It also shows the reasons she was permanently removed from her job Friday – a stunning inability to get facts straight and an unwillingness to change course when confronted with reasons to do so.
Cline, 48, did not speak in court that January day in Durham, watching as a judge dismissed her claim in a matter of minutes.
She is out of office now because of her words and actions against Durham’s senior judge – lengthy filings filled with vitriolic language, unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, tales of a conspiracy with The News & Observer and other accusations of misconduct that have been obliterated by three judges.
Cline stands by it all, telling Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood last week that “what I recorded in those motions was absolutely true.”
The flawed behavior that cost Cline her job wasn’t new. It has been displayed in a range of criminal cases she handled over the years, according to an examination of court documents, transcripts, interviews and news reports.
But the action she took against Hudson was in full public view, and it was aimed at a judge, not a criminal defendant.
Carol Tavris, a Los Angeles social psychologist who has researched and written about the behavior and decision-making of prosecutors, said studies show the human brain, when sorting out conflicting beliefs and actions, will engage in a powerful act known as “self-justification.”
It can keep people from admitting they are wrong and can be more powerful and more dangerous than an explicit lie, she said in an interview and in a 2007 book she co-authored, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).”
People will convince themselves they are correct even when they are not, she said. It happens in everything from bad marriages to buying a car that costs too much.
Self-justification is especially concerning in the justice system, Tavris said, because authorities often view themselves as “good guys” doing the “right thing.”
Tavris said Cline was likely faced with “dissonance” in the face of unfavorable rulings and questions about her work, which leads the brain to “self-justify” decisions and actions.
“It’s really, really, really hard to face the reality that you screwed up,” she said. “When we have a view of ourselves as good, competent, ethical, honest people and we are now confronted with evidence that we did something that was incompetent, unethical, immoral or harmful, we have two choices. We can fess up – say, ‘Oh, my God, look at this evidence, what did I do? How can I make amends?’ Or, we deny.”
In the removal inquiry, Cline did get to speak about her allegation, based on the time stamp, that Hudson decided a case early. She was faced with affidavits from court clerks, testimony and a courtroom transcript that contradicted what she said.
Cline did not yield, saying broadly that she knew the judge decided the case early.
“Are you willing to admit that it’s possible that you’re wrong about what Judge Hudson did?” a lawyer asked her.
Cline said no.
Public choice theory tells us that public officials don’t magically start behaving selflessly and altruistically simply because they’ve chosen a career in public service. They’ll still act in their own interest most of the time, as we all do. That’s not an indictment of public service. It’s a recognition of human nature, and how we’re hard-wired. In terms of policy, it’s prescribes that we design our institutions in a way that accounts for how people actually behave, not for an idealized version of how we hope they’ll behave. The left tends to dismiss public choice theory outright. The right tends to believe it’s applicable to all areas of public service except law enforcement and criminal justice.
These are generalizations, of course. There are exceptions on both sides. But good people don’t thrive in systems with bad incentives. You either attract bad actors, turn good actors into bad ones, or the good actors drop out, leaving you only with the bad ones.