Monday, July 11, 2011

DA's lawsuit kindles gossip and questions

Johnston County district attorney claims best friend had affair with her husband; now DA is talk of the town

Smithfield Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle called her staff into a conference room one day last October to tell them about the turmoil in her home: She said she had discovered her best friend was sleeping with her husband.

One longtime staffer gasped and began to weep. And, in a rare show of emotion, so did Doyle.

"She was just hurt," said Kathy Russell, a longtime victim advocate in the DA's office who described the meeting. "I've never seen her that sad. My heart broke for her."

Within days, news of the betrayal spread through the hallways of the Johnston County Courthouse. And, for nine months, it lingered, bringing an awkward tension to a place where everyone knows everyone else's business.

Last month, it went public in the most unlikely way. Doyle sued Christi Stem, her best friend and godmother of her two children, saying Stem had had an affair with Doyle's husband, Michael.

In the lawsuit, she details tawdry texts Stem and Michael Doyle allegedly sent each other, along with the times and places of their secret liaisons.

Since last fall, Stem, a lawyer who handles divorce cases, cowered in the courthouse, careful to check the hallways for Doyle before she walked through, lawyers say. Everyone seemed to tiptoe around the feuding friends.

"I hated it for Christi. I hated it for Susan," said Alan DeLane, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor who worked with Doyle. "It's just not something you expected to hear, not something you wanted to hear."

As part of the suit, Stem, who is also married, will be forced to answer 66 questions about the alleged affair. Doyle seeks damages of more than $10,000 for her pain and humiliation.

The lawsuit startled everyone, including Republicans who helped get her elected.

"I have no idea why she did it," said state Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, a Republican and longtime booster of Doyle. "If she had asked me, I would have told her not to do it. Ever. I don't know why anyone would want to air their dirty laundry."

Doyle, 42, wouldn't talk about the lawsuit and the details she alleged in it, saying it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on a pending case. She said this about why she filed it:

"As a prosecutor, for years, I've met with victims. Often, they don't want to go forward with their case, don't want to confront their perpetrator. They don't want to go through the pain and difficulty. ... I tell them that it is painful and it is difficult and it is important. I don't know how I can have any credibility if I'm not willing to do the same thing."

Michael Doyle, an executive with Manpower in Raleigh, married Susan Doyle 14 years ago. They are now separated. He couldn't be reached for comment.

She was popular with voters

Doyle had spent much of 2010 on the campaign trail, logging long hours meeting voters at civic group fundraisers and country church homecoming services.

She played well there. Doyle is a career prosecutor who talks tough about drunken driving, the drug addicts who've gotten too many chances and the murderers so vile they deserve to die for their crimes. She won re-election with 66 percent of the vote.

She joined the Johnston County District Attorney's Office as an intern in 1992, then became a full-time prosecutor in 1994. She prosecuted violent crimes much of the time.

Doyle first won the race for district attorney in 2006, beating her fellow assistant district attorney and friend, Dale Stubbs. With the victory, she became the first female district attorney in Johnston County, and the first Republican.

"Susan had an appeal," Daughtry said. "She had a good personality and voters could tell she did her homework."

With blonde hair, blue eyes and a glowing tan, Doyle is attractive. When she walked into meetings with voters, they noticed.

"People would see me and say, 'Well, we sure do have the prettiest DA.' It is a compliment, but it overlooks my intelligence and how hard I work."

Doyle associates sentenced

In Doyle's first year as DA, her closest allies in the courthouse began fraudulently dismissing dozens of DWI cases.

The scandal rocked the Johnston County legal community and Doyle in particular. In 2009, her former prosecutor and friend, Cindy Jaeger, along with Doyle's friends and criminal defense lawyers Lee Hatch and Chad Lee, were sent to prison for obstructing justice. Two other lawyers, Jack McLamb and Vann Sauls, were put on probation.

As each of her former friends walked toward the jail to turn themselves in, Doyle sat in a nearby car with some of her staff, watching and taking photos with their phones.

Doyle explained the unusual action, saying she and her staff had been victimized.

"It had a life-changing effect," Doyle said. "I don't trust like I used to."

Lawyers criticized Doyle

Relations are poor between Doyle and most defense attorneys, people around the courthouse say.

It's partly what drove fellow Republican and lawyer Joy Jones to run against Doyle in the 2010 primary for district attorney. Doyle defeated Jones and also beat former judge George Murphy in the fall.

Lawyers complain that Doyle is hard to reach, rarely shows up in court and offers special treatment to certain defendants and lawyers with connections to the Republican Party. Many point to a deal extended to Paula Harrison, daughter of Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, when she was arrested and charged with trafficking pain pills.

Doyle allowed Harrison to be placed on a probation of sorts and go to rehab. If she complies, the charge will be dismissed. Doyle defends the resolution, as does Harrison's attorney, Daughtry, saying Harrison had a health problem that led to her addiction.

Distrust was so intense between the district attorney's office and defense lawyers that in 2009 Doyle asked for help from Melvin Wright, executive director for the N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice's Commission on Professionalism. Wright organized and oversaw a training session to try to remind attorneys how to be zealous advocates and kind to each other.

Things remain tense

Hallway banter and courtroom handshakes seem scarce. Instead of a meeting ahead of time to discuss the likely course for a case, prosecutors and defense attorneys are battling about those details in court. And some cases are taking more time than usual.

Late last month, Tom Lock, Johnston County superior court judge and Doyle's former boss, dismissed several meth-related charges against George Adams, saying he'd been denied a speedy trial after more than 400 days in jail and no apparent movement on the case. Doyle said she had expected federal authorities to prosecute.

Doyle chalks up the criticism and strain in the courthouse to her policies. She applied for a grant to prosecute drunken driving charges more aggressively; since then, the conviction rate has soared to more than 85 percent. Previously, about half of DWIs were dismissed.

She also requires more speeders to go to driving school before getting a break on tickets, especially the youngest drivers. She drew a hard line on people who get in trouble with the law repeatedly. Her assistants charge people as habitual felons when they qualify; Doyle must personally make any exceptions.

"I did buck the system," she said.

Lots of talk, even before suit

Even before news of Doyle's family problems shook loose last fall, people gossiped about her personal life.

"The courthouse is an echo chamber. You hear the same thing again and again and it all starts sounding true," said DeLane, the former colleague. "I think people talk in part because of her success. She seems to move from one success to another and that invites curiosity. And speculation."

Doyle said she has done nothing wrong.

"During my 4 1/2 years in office, I've been the victim of unfounded rumors by my political opponents," she said. "I take pride in doing things the right way in my personal and professional life."

Is political future at risk?

People have been talking of late about Doyle's political ambitions - and whether the lawsuit will affect her future.

She said she has been approached about running for attorney general. Doyle said she's happy as district attorney for now.

In the coming year, she will stand on a statewide stage as president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. In that role, which she assumed July 1, Doyle will be a voice for district attorneys across the state, in the legislature and beyond.

Peg Dorer, executive director of the district attorneys' group, was warned of Doyle's lawsuit 15 minutes before it hit the media.

"Well, that's her personal life and her business," Dorer said. "I certainly have concerns about whether she will have the time to devote to the presidency."

Daughtry said the case could haunt Doyle for quite a while.

"Some upheavals last longer than others," he said. "Some have legs. Some don't. I suspect this will be a cloud she will have to deal with for some time."

By Mandy Locke and Colin Campbell,

Source: The Charlotte Observer Newspaper

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