The calm after the storm

Aug. 19, 2014 @ 05:24 PM

When then-Gov. Beverly Perdue tapped Leon Stanback, a retired Superior Court judge, to be Durham’s district attorney 2 ½ years ago, the office was in the midst of its second tempest in a handful of years.

Tracy Cline had just been barred from the office after a long-running and embarrassing dispute with Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson. Five years earlier, Mike Nifong resigned the job in disgrace after his prosecution of Duke lacrosse players on sexual-abuse charges that turned out to be baseless. 

Public confidence and office morale had plummeted.  Into that morass stepped Stanback -- an admirable choice, people said at the time.

“Being around Judge Stanback is like you’re in the eye of a hurricane,” Archie Smith, clerk of Superior Court, said in an especially apt analogy given the storms that had buffered the office. “Everything is calm and sunshiny while the torrent rages without.”

And Butch Williams, a defense attorney who long had known Stanback, was equally forceful. “He’s got a wealth of experience and knowledge of how the system works as well as, he has the respect of everybody from the first floor all the way up to the sixth floor,” Williams said in reference to the county’s judicial center at the time.

In the years since, Stanback’s conduct and performance have proved those accolades correct.  Like Jim Hardin Jr. – who served as interim DA after Nifong’s departure – Stanback was a calming force whose integrity and fairness were widely appreciated.

Now, with Roger Echols, chief assistant district attorney poised to win election to the top post unopposed in November, Stanback has decided to step down. “I think it’s time for me to move on,” Stanback told The Herald-Sun’s Keith Upchurch after his decision was announced. “I think it’s time to give Echols a chance to perform on the job.”

Gov. Pat McCrory promptly appointed Echols, who won’t have to wait until after the election to move into the office. He takes over Sept. 1.

Echols, for his part, said he benefited from Stanback’s time in office. He wants to build on the strong relationships Stanback forged with law enforcement agencies – relationships that had been strained in the preceding tumultuous years.

Stanback said he’s proud of the staff he has assembled during his tenure, and Echols has said he hopes to maintain it.

The departing district attorney said he has no firm post-retirement plans, although he may later join a law firm. “I don’t think I can sit around and twiddle my thumbs,” he told Upchurch. “I’m not quite ready for that.”

Because he wasn’t ready to stay on the sidelines 2 ½ years ago, we should be grateful. He proved, just as everyone expected, to be the right person at the right time to steady a troubled office.