Raleigh Three News & Observer employees and a former staffer were questioned in Wake County Superior Court on Friday about their role in a 2010 article that is the subject of a libel trial.
It was the first day that N&O staffers took the witness stand in the trial, now into its seventh day and expected to continue through next week.
The staffers, and the newspaper’s top editor, were largely questioned about internal newsroom emails and planning documents discussing a four-part series that detailed problems with forensic evidence analysis and the practices of the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab. The questioning of John Drescher, the paper’s executive editor, will resume Monday.
SBI agent Beth Desmond is suing over six statements in the fourth article in the N&O “Agents’ Secrets” series. That story said, among other things, that independent firearms experts suspected that Desmond falsified evidence to help prosecutors win a murder conviction in 2006 in Pitt County. To win her libel suit, Desmond must convince the jury not only that the information published about her was false, but that the reporter, Mandy Locke, knew or suspected it was false when she wrote it.
Toward that end, Desmond’s lawyer, James Johnson, questioned N&O staff photographer Travis Long about doubts Long raised in a planning meeting to Locke and others. Long’s questions pertained to a photograph of bullet fragments that Desmond had analyzed for the 2006 trial. The defense attorney in the Pitt County trial had the bullets photographed and circulated the photos to suggest Desmond wrongly identified the bullet fragments as coming from the same type of gun, eliminating a second shooter and resulting in a criminal conviction.
Long noticed that the bullet fragments in the photograph were not facing in the same direction, so that their characteristics appeared dissimilar. Long demonstrated his concerns by drawing lines on a sheet of paper, ripping the paper in half, and turning the sheets around to show the lines didn’t match up when reversed.
“I don’t think anybody said anything,” Long said. “I’m not sure I explained myself at the meeting. ... I can’t say for certain if they understood what I was trying to illustrate.”
Assistant features editor Brooke Cain, who was a news researcher in 2010, was asked about her emails with Locke in preparation for the story about Desmond. In a June 2010 email asking Cain to make a public records search, Locke wrote that she had narrowed her focus to a few SBI agents and firearms analysts “that we’re bearing down on.”
Also in June, Locke had learned that Desmond had once been a ballet dancer with the Juilliard Dance Ensemble. “Bingo!” Locke wrote to Cain. The researcher responded: “Sounds like an excellent main character for a crime novel.” Locke wrote: “How in the world this woman went from ballet to firearms identification work is beyond me.”
Desmond contends that the inclusion of her dancing past in the investigative story was intended to demean her.
Photographer Shawn Rocco, who has since left the paper and now works for Duke University, emailed Locke on July 29, two weeks before her story about Desmond ran. Locke had emailed Rocco to apologize for a change in the publication deadline for the story, and Rocco expressed his frustration with SBI practices.
“Concentrate on writing the best damn piece you’ve ever done,” Rocco wrote to Locke. “I want you to compel our readers to gather pitchforks and torches.”
Rocco said his email was not referring to Desmond or to Locke’s 2010 article about Desmond’s ballistics analysis.