N&O reporters win national award for SBI series

From Staff ReportsApril 18, 2011 

Two News & Observer reporters won a national journalism award Sunday night for their reporting about problems at the State Bureau of Investigation.

Mandy Locke and Joseph Neff were presented with the Michael Kelly Award, presented by the Atlantic Media Co. to reporters who exhibit "the fearless pursuit and expression of truth." Kelly was the editor of National Journal and The Atlantic Monthly who died while covering the war in Iraq in 2003.

The award carries a $25,000 prize.

Locke and Neff researched and wrote a four-part series, "Agents' Secrets," in August. It revealed that some State Bureau of Investigation agents were bullying vulnerable suspects and that some lab analysts had pushed past the accepted bounds of science to deliver results that helped prosecutors' cases.

Shortly after, an audit ordered by Attorney General Roy Cooper showed that the lab had withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases.

As a result, the SBI's director and lab director were replaced. The General Assembly has passed laws making it clear that the state crime lab works for the full justice system, not just prosecutors, and making it a crime for analysts or other law-enforcement agents to withhold evidence. One defendant who had served 12 years in jail has been freed, and others are challenging the SBI's work in court

Locke, 32, came to the N&O in 2004. She covered the case of Greg Taylor, a Wake County man who served 17 years for murder before being exonerated early in 2010. It was that case that led to the "Agents' Secrets" series.

Neff, 51, is a veteran investigative reporter who has written extensively about criminal justice. He laid bare the prosecutorial misconduct of former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong in the Duke lacrosse case, and in 2008, he worked on a series about the state's crippled probation system.

Others prominently involved in the series included videographer Travis Long, photojournalist Shawn Rocco and Steve Riley, senior editor for investigations.

Others finalists for the award included journalists from The Associated Press, Mother Jones magazine and Slate.

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