Cline enters job as first elected DA since Nifong

As long as Tracey Cline prevents her name from becoming a verb, she will have done a better job avoiding negative attention than former Durham district attorney Mike Nifong.

Cline emerged from a crowded Democratic field vying for the district attorney post to capture a primary victory in May. She was officially elected Nov. 4 after running unopposed in the general election. Her victory makes her the first popularly elected DA in Durham County since Nifong was disbarred. David Saacks was appointed as Nifong's temporary replacement in September 2007.

Durham County voters elected Nifong as district attorney in November 2006. The University was at the center of the national media attention surrounding the false rape allegations pursued by Nifong against members of the 2005-2006 men's lacrosse team. To "Nifong" someone has since been used by several commentators to describe the act of falsely accusing a person.

Cline served as an assistant district attorney under Nifong during the case, and she said she felt the lacrosse topic was overemphasized by her opponents in the campaign.

"That was an issue that was raised by the people who were trying to get the office because that was the issue that was available," she said. "We need to stop pointing fingers about things that are in the past that are out of our control."

Freda Black, who worked alongside Nifong and lost to him in the 2006 DA race, finished second to Cline in the May primary. Black criticized Cline during the campaign for her connections to the infamous case and even used the slogan "Don't Get Nifonged Again" to attack Cline in some campaign materials.

"I don't think the lacrosse case was really on anybody's mind when they were voting, although that was something I felt strongly about," Black said. "To this day I don't really know what [Cline's] involvement exactly was. I believe the pending lawsuits will figure that out."

Gang prevention, drug enforcement and juvenile crimes are far more pressing concerns than lacrosse-related issues, Cline said. She said she wants to promote an equal and fair justice system "that is not based on who you are and who you know."

Cline said the community moved past the lacrosse case after her May election. But Brooklyn College professor K.C. Johnson, author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland, said Cline may not have been honest about her level of involvement in the case.

"You have someone coming in as Durham's minister of justice who simply wasn't truthful to the voters of Durham," he said. "The idea that you could have this significant chunk of the electorate who still doesn't see this case as a disqualifier... shows that for whatever reason they still haven't come to grips with what happened."

Black said Cline's primary victory was due to increased voter turnout and several crucial endorsements. The influential Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, in particular, gave its support to Cline.

Other interest groups like the Durham People's Alliance and the Triangle Association of Professionals endorsed her, in addition to newspapers The (Durham) Herald-Sun and the Independent Weekly.

Durham voters understand what happened during the lacrosse case, Cline said, adding that she gained voters' trust based on her previous conduct and experience.

"Cline is a great attorney who has already shown that she can manage a case load. She understands the need to address escalating juvenile crime, and as a black woman, could be an excellent role model for the young African Americans caught in the system. She is putting to rest questions that she was involved in Nifong's lacrosse prosecution," the Independent Weekly wrote in its April endorsement.

Keith Bishop, another one of Cline's primary opponents who was unconnected to the former Nifong administration, said it is important for Cline to improve public perceptions of the Durham DA's office.

"I'm hopeful that she will in fact do that... the people of Durham require it," he said.

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