Lawyer James Johnson spent four hours Friday questioning News & Observer reporter Mandy Locke in a complex libel trial involving the State Bureau of Investigation’s analysis of crime evidence and a journalist’s use of potentially damaging statements.
Locke was the final witness on the trial’s 12th day, during which Johnson suggested Locke was being evasive and untruthful, while she challenged the wording of his questions and said that writing a news story is not like writing a book report.
Locke and the N&O are being sued by SBI agent Beth Desmond for a 2010 article that said independent firearms experts questioned whether Desmond knew anything about firearms analysis and that some wondered if she falsified evidence in a Pitt County murder trial to help prosecutors win a conviction in 2006. Four experts whom Locke interviewed for the story have testified that they were not the sources for the statements that Desmond says libeled her.
Johnson referred to Locke as “an English major from UVA” to suggest she made deliberate word choices and omissions.
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He asked Locke: “Is it fair to say you took different bits and pieces of your emails and notes to conjure up or create your basis for that? Is it okay for you to take the various bits and pieces of emails and notes and ignore other bits and pieces?”
Locke replied: “I don’t think it’s fair to say that I ignored.”
Johnson compared the wording in the N&O story to Locke’s interview notes, her emails, internal newsroom communications and court documents to try to establish that Locke distorted information to malign Desmond’s reputation.
Johnson asked: “Why don’t you just report the facts and let [readers] decide what’s important, rather than you deciding what’s important?”
Locke explained: It’s a journalist’s job to assess and synthesize reams of data.
In two key sentences in her story, which summarized her reporting, Locke attributed doubts about Desmond’s work to “independent firearms experts.” Johnson asked Locke why she didn’t connect each assertion in those passages to a specific source. Locke said: “If I had, I believe the sting would have been even worse than it is here.”
Johnson then asked if Locke believes her sources lied when they testified earlier that they never told her that Desmond falsified evidence.
“You believed all your sources were credible in 2010,” he said. “Do you believe any of them or all of them are lying now?”
Locke said that after the story ran, one source suggested they have a drink and others never complained to her. Locke said her sources are “distancing themselves” because of pressure from the firearms analyst community. “I will not sit here in judgment of these people,” she said.