Beth Desmond, a 14-year agent with State Bureau of Investigation, spent more than two hours Friday telling a Wake County jury how a 2010 article in The News & Observer upended her life.
Desmond’s emotional testimony marked the second day of trial in Wake County Superior Court in her libel suit against the Raleigh newspaper for publishing an article critical of Desmond’s work as a firearms analyst. The paper wrote, among other things, that independent firearms experts suspected that Desmond falsified evidence to help prosecutors win a conviction in a murder case.
“When you accuse me of falsifying evidence, you cross a line,” Desmond said. To her, The N&O said “that I committed a crime.”
Desmond occupied the witness stand the entire day as her lawyer, James Johnson, led her through the events that led up to the Aug. 14, 2010, publication of The N&O article, and the events that followed. She said she meticulously analyzed bullet fragments, sometimes taking hours to measure, inspect and interpret crime scene evidence under a high-powered microscope.
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Desmond, 51, was not demoted or reprimanded after the story was published. But criminal defense attorneys subsequently raised questions about her credibility, and the story was repeated in other articles and by bloggers. She said she was overcome with anxiety and was unable to focus, eventually asking for a transfer out of the forensics unit. She is now assistant special agent in charge in the Criminal Information and Identification Section, where she oversees fingerprint-based background checks of teachers, daycare workers and others.
Speaking in a halting manner, with her voice cracking at times, Desmond told the jury that she became obsessed with safety and often withdrew to her room to watch TV instead of interacting with her son and husband. She is still seeing a mental health counselor, she said.
When Johnson asked her why she is suing, Desmond said: “I want to hold people accountable for what they wrote about me.
“But it’s more than that,” she continued. “I never want my son to think that what they wrote about me is true. I don’t want him to grow up and say, ‘If it wasn’t true, why didn’t you fight?’
“I want him to know that I fought.”
The N&O article in 2010 said that Beth Desmond’s misleading trial testimony helped prosecutors win a criminal conviction for the 2005 shooting death of 10-year-old Christopher Foggs. The boy was killed during a street fight between two groups of rival teens in Pitt County. The N&O article said that Desmond’s testimony in the trial of Jemaul Green was more definitive than her lab report, and eliminated the possibility of a second shooter, helping prosecutors win Green’s conviction for Foggs’ death.
The story, based on thousands of pages of documents and numerous interviews, was the last installment of a four-part series that raised questions about the reliability of forensic evidence and the trustworthiness of the SBI’s investigative practices.
Desmond is suing N&O reporter Mandy Locke, The News & Observer Publishing Co., and McClatchy Newspapers, the N&O’s parent company.
In a libel case, a public official must convince a jury that the media outlet published false information and the journalists involved either knew it was false or had serious doubts about it. Desmond must also demonstrate to the jury that the libel harmed her reputation or caused some other harm.