A Wake County jury began discussions Monday to decide if The News & Observer libeled Beth Desmond, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, following three weeks of court proceedings that began in late September. In his closing argument, Desmond’s lawyer, James Johnson, told jurors that Desmond’s suffering is going to be difficult to quantify, but suggested the jury consider $500,000 as a starting point in their discussions for their money award against the newspaper.
The N&O’s lawyers told jurors the paper was accurate in its 2010 coverage of SBI practices and Desmond’s ballistics analysis in a criminal trial. But even if the jury concluded the newspaper got it wrong, said attorney Mark Prak, in order to find libel, jurors would have to conclude that reporters Mandy Locke and Joseph Neff knowingly printed falsehoods.
At issue in the case are six statements the N&O published in 2010, among them that independent firearms experts questioned whether Desmond knew anything about her field, and also that some suspected she falsified evidence in a 2006 criminal trial to help Pitt County prosecutors win a murder conviction.
Desmond is suing the N&O and Locke, and says the Aug. 14, 2010 article triggered events that led to her developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
The jury’s task is to determine whether Locke accurately quoted or paraphrased her sources for the article.
In the trial, four sources testified that they were either misquoted or that their statements were taken out of context. However, one source testified at trial that it was a misunderstanding and blamed himself, and another had initially praised the story to Locke in an email but later asked for a retraction.
Prak told the jury it’s ultimately irrelevant what the sources now believe about what they told Locke in 2010; all that matters is Locke’s understanding at the time of what the sources told her. Prak also said that Desmond’s adverse reaction to the story is also immaterial.
“It doesn’t matter that Beth Desmond doesn’t like the story and that it causes her some amount of pain,” Prak said. “Ms. Desmond would be well-advised to simply move on.”
Prak said Locke’s article reported that experts raised questions and suspicions about her bullet analysis. In the 2006 Pitt County trial, Desmond testified with “absolute certainty” that two bullet fragments came from the same type of gun. The N&O reported that her testimony overstated her lab analysis and helped eliminate the possibility of a second gunman. Prak told the jury that Desmond’s 2006 testimony was misleading and amounted to falsifying evidence.
Desmond’s attorney told jurors that newsroom emails and documents show that Locke had settled on a story line long before her story ran: that the SBI was fabricating evidence to convict innocent people. Then Locke misled her sources in a ploy to persuade them to criticize Desmond, and then she cherry-picked the most negative details for her story.
“It was very very selective as to what was going in the article and what was not,” Johnson said. “She’s trying to fuel the fire to see what they’ll say.”
Johnson compared interview transcripts and emails with words Locke used in the story. “The qualifiers that are seen in these emails, it’s just startling that none of them appear in the article.”
Johnson said Desmond, 51, is still recovering from the wounds the N&O inflicted six years ago.
“She falls apart,” he said. “She ends up losing a good part of her son’s life.”