News & Observer:
A steadying hand
Durham's new interim district attorney, appointed by Governor Easley, should help restore public confidence in the office
Jim Hardin gained the most visibility as Durham's district attorney when he successfully prosecuted novelist Mike Peterson in 2003 in the murder of his wife, Kathleen. But even before then, Hardin was known as a fairly cool customer in the way he ran the D.A.'s office. Certainly his return for a two-month stint in that position offers a measure of hope for order to be restored. Governor Easley appointed Hardin on Wednesday.
Hardin sounded the right notes at a news conference the day after his temporary selection to replace Mike Nifong. Among those notes was his vow for "transparency," meaning that the office will be committed to publicly explaining its decisions. Hardin acknowledged that goes against the instincts of most folks in law enforcement. That type of openness, he said, "is typically something we're not comfortable with, but I believe we have to be as transparent as we can."
And Hardin will have a free hand to make personnel changes he deems necessary. He clearly understands just how much damage has been done in the wake of the Duke lacrosse case fiasco. Indeed, it roiled hard feelings on the part of many in the community, and Hardin vows to restore credibility and integrity to the office. He returns with a good bit of support in Durham, which ought to help.
It's hard to know just what kind of shape the office is in. Nifong, whose name is now synonymous with wretched prosecutorial excess, was appointed to the district attorney's post by Easley after the governor made Hardin a special Superior Court judge. But Nifong has gone down -- disbarred, resigned -- and deservedly so, after his pursuit of Duke University lacrosse players in a sexual assault that Attorney General Roy Cooper ruled never happened.
To say that public confidence, and that of the legal community, is low regarding the Durham D.A.'s office is a woeful understatement. Hardin has a chance to right the ship, and there's confidence now that he will reach out to the community to try to show citizens that the office intends to operate on the up-and-up. Lawyers who frequently deal with the office already have indicated they have more confidence in Hardin.
The power of district attorneys in this state is vast, and the legislature to some degree is reviewing that, which is good. Nifong's behavior was another illustration of how that power could be abused, and prosecutors clearly are concerned that their authority could be curbed and scrutiny of them increased. That might be appropriate -- limiting control of court calendars, for example -- along with a general effort to educate D.A.s that their first mission is justice, not winning.
In any event, Durham is better off with an experienced prosecutor who knows the ropes. And the rules.
Those who long for the day Durham can move beyond the lacrosse case should be pleased with Gov. Mike Easley's selection of Jim Hardin to serve as temporary district attorney.
Hardin preceded Mike Nifong in the DA's job, serving for 11 years until 2005 when Easley named Hardin to a Superior Court judgeship. His appointment should return desperately needed stability to the office after the nightmare of the lacrosse case.
Hardin will need to step down from his judgeship while he returns to his former office, so the community owes him a big debt of gratitude.
Both Easley and Hardin must feel chagrined for recommending Nifong as DA. In retrospect, it was a mistake. But based on Nifong's 28-year record of solid experience, how could anyone have predicted that his tenure would go so terribly wrong?
But that's in the past, and tapping Hardin as a temporary replacement feels like the right move for the future. It puts a trusted, sure hand in the office, as well as a person who can help choose a permanent replacement.
Hardin certainly knows Durham well. More importantly, he is well-versed in the day-to-day demands of the position, so he will have no learning curve. The last thing Durham needs now is someone whose inexperience could lead to missteps.
As district attorney, Hardin supervised many cases, but he will always be remembered for the Michael Peterson trial. Peterson was charged with murdering his wife, Kathleen, who was found covered in blood at the bottom of a staircase in the couple's Forest Hills mansion in December, 2001.
Peterson hired a high-powered team of defense attorneys who belittled the Durham Police Department's conduct of the investigation and mounted a costly defense that included celebrity witnesses such as blood spatter expert Henry Lee.
But the quality of the work of Hardin, Assistant DA Freda Black and local and state investigators was reaffirmed when the jury returned a guilty verdict. Peterson is now serving a life term.
That performance is in marked contrast to Nifong, who pursued a sexual assault case against three lacrosse players for more than a year on the basis of the shakiest evidence imaginable.
Durham needs someone to restore confidence, and Hardin is an excellent choice.
For the duration of the Hoax, the editorial boards of both newspapers offered repeated affirmations of the thoroughly exposed Minister of Injustice. With that in mind, it is difficult to place much confidence in their endorsements of Hardin.
Today's editorials alternately ignore or gloss over the fact that it was Jim Hardin's recommendation of Mr. Nifong that directed Governor Easley to his "worst ever" appointment. Hardin's flawed evaluation of a prosecutor he worked alongside for nearly 20 years and selected, not only as his successor, but also as his top assistant, reflects poorly on Hardin's personnel evaluations and impartiality at a time when those characteristics appear to be in demand. Incredibly, while rationalizing the mistake that was Nifong, the Herald-Sun suggests that Hardin is due gratitude for his return to clean the house he left in disarray.
Both editorials also point to the successful prosecution of Michael Peterson as cause to have confidence in Hardin's return. Despite the notoriety of that case, it is difficult to see the connection between a highly publicized trial win that preceded elevation to a judgeship and eliminating a "justice be damned just win at all costs" approach to prosecution.
The News & Observer mentions the expressions of confidence in Hardin offered by local defense attorneys, yet fails to note the generous campaign donations and very public support many of those same attorneys offered the volatile Mr. Nifong and his Hoax when their legal livelihoods were at his mercy. As with the endorsements by the editorial boards, the support of attorneys who championed Mr. Nifong offers little reassurance.
In fairness, support for the appointment of Hardin has not been limited to those who supported and enabled Mr. Nifong and his Hoax.
"I think Jim will bring sorely needed integrity to the office," said Jackie Brown, Nifong's former campaign manager who became one of his biggest critics. "People like him, trust him, and he's just what Durham needs right now."
"Jim was an excellent district attorney, and I enjoyed working for him for many years," said former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, who helped prosecute the Peterson murder trial [and campaigned against Nifong]. "It sounds like a sound decision on the governor's part."
For his part, DA Hardin has said many of "right things" since his appointment:
- "There were a lot of reasons for me to agree to come back and do whatever I can to help this office and move this office forward";
- "You all have been reporting for over a year about the dysfunction of this office. I'm going to do the best I can to assess that for him [Easley] and report back"
- "We were going to learn from this and move forward and represent the people of Durham County in an ethical and legal way in everything we do";
- "I made it very plain and very clear (to the office's staff) that every decision we make is essentially going to be based on one thing: Do the right thing for the right reason, do it in an ethical way and a legal and efficient way. We're going to do that from start to finish."
While cautious and skeptical, we share, with reservations, the hope that DA Hardin's words do not prove empty.
When DA Hardin does the "right thing for the right reason" by:
- terminating the employment of Nifong henchman Linwood Wilson,
- investigating the role of ADA Tracy Cline in the Hoax, and
- requesting an SBI investigation into the serious crimes alleged during the recent DHC trial and within the defense motion calling for criminal contempt sanctions against Mr. Nifong;