News & Observer investigative reporter Mandy Locke explained to a Wake County jury Thursday that the overturning of a 17-year-old murder conviction by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2010 and an unrelated murder trial in Pitt County that year prompted a four-part N&O investigative series that’s now the subject of a libel trial in Wake County Superior Court.
The series, “Agents’ Secrets,” raised questions about the reliability of forensic evidence analysis in criminal trials, focusing on practices and controversies at the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab. The fourth story, largely reported and written by Locke, said independent firearms experts questioned whether SBI agent Beth Desmond knew anything about ballistics. The story also said that some experts suspected Desmond falsified evidence to help Pitt County prosecutors win a conviction in 2006.
Desmond’s libel suit against Locke and the N&O alleges the 2010 story was so upsetting to Desmond that it triggered post-traumatic stress disorder. Four witnesses whom Locke interviewed for the story have already testified that they didn’t tell Locke that Desmond falsified evidence, but were speaking hypothetically or generally.
Leading up to the N&O’s SBI series in 2010 was the finding of a wrongful imprisonment that had shaken up the SBI. Greg Taylor, a Wake County man convicted in 1993 for the murder of a woman found beaten and abandoned in Raleigh, spent 17 years in prison before the three-judge Innocence Inquiry Commission declared him innocent in 2010.
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It was the first such exoneration by an independent innocence commission in the United States. Taylor sued, and the SBI paid him $4.625 million in compensation. By 2013, the SBI and its insurers had paid out about $16.4 million in settlements to three innocent men – Taylor, Floyd Brown and Alan Gell – who were exonerated after spending a combined 40 years behind bars or in detention.
Locke began testifying Wednesday and continued Thursday; she is expected to conclude Friday, which will be the 12th day of trial. On Thursday, Locke, questioned by N&O lawyer John Bussian, discussed how she distilled and interpreted her interview notes to write the Aug. 14, 2010, article.
Locke said experts used terms like lying, gross incompetence, malfeasance and misconduct to describe Desmond’s analysis of two bullet fragments and her court testimony in the Pitt County murder trial.
“My job was to come up with a word that captured the totality of their concerns and questions,” Locke said.
“If I didn’t believe this is what they’re telling me, I wouldn’t have written it,” Locke said. “I believed that it was true then, and after a lot of re-evaluation and reflection, I believe I was right.”
Locke also explained to the jury how various sentences in the story functioned to summarize and forecast, guiding readers through complex legal and scientific terrain. And Locke told the jury about her approach to navigating the moral landscape of investigative journalism.
“While I know that this story might affect people, and might embarrass people, and might hurt people’s feelings, this was a tremendously important story for us to write,” Locke said. “Concerns about whether somebody feels uncomfortable or is embarrassed cannot be the litmus test for what we write.
“This job is my life,” Locke told the jury. “I built my life on words – hearing them, understanding them, choosing them, and relaying them.”