A jury on Wednesday heard William Tobin, a retired chief forensic metallurgist for the FBI, describe his initial disappointment upon reading his quotes in a 2010 News & Observer article that is now the subject of a libel trial in Wake County Superior Court.
The N&O story said some firearms experts suspected that State Bureau of Investigation agent Beth Desmond had falsified evidence in her analysis of spent bullet fragments to help Pitt County prosecutors win a conviction in a 2006 murder trial.
Tobin was a source for N&O reporter Mandy Locke on that investigative article, and Locke had sought him out as a known critic of the field of firearm identification analysis.
Tobin did not make a court appearance Wednesday, the fifth day of the trial; instead, jurors heard lawyers read Tobin’s testimony from a 2013 deposition taken in Virginia.
Tobin said he never accused Desmond of falsifying evidence in the murder trial. He said he told Locke that falsification would be the most egregious potential cause of a flawed bullet analysis. Tobin described how, shortly after the N&O story ran, he called the SBI to apologize for any impression that he was criticizing an SBI agent’s work.
“I was not referring to a specific case; I was just referring to general errors,” Tobin said in the deposition.
In the 2006 Pitt County trial described in Locke’s story, Desmond testified in court with “absolute certainty” that two recovered bullet fragments had been fired from the same type of gun. Desmond’s testimony helped prosecutors eliminate the possibility of a second gunman in the trial for the shooting death of a 10-year-old boy.
Desmond is now suing Locke, The News & Observer Publishing Co. and McClatchy Newspapers. To prevail in her libel claim, Desmond must convince the jury the N&O published false information and that Locke knew or suspected it was false when she wrote it.
In his deposition, Tobin blamed himself for the way he was quoted, saying that his communication style is difficult to follow because he speaks in “very lengthy compound complex sentences.”
“Frankly, I consider it a misunderstanding,” he said. “If she didn’t believe what she was writing, she wouldn’t have printed it that way, I believe.”
Tobin described Locke as congenial, smooth, highly intelligent, articulate and dogged. He praised Locke’s article as “excellent” overall and called it a tremendous public service.
Tobin also said that firearms analysts who render conclusions with certainty, as Desmond had done in court, are almost always lacking scientific basis and “could be misleading or could be misinterpreted.”
In the 2010 article about Desmond, Tobin said: “This is a big red flag for the whole unit. This is as bad as it can be. It raises the question of whether she did an analysis at all.”
Also testifying Wednesday was Adina Schwartz, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, the school where Desmond received her degree in forensic science. Schwartz’s testimony also was not live but a videotaped deposition taken in March in New York.
On screen, Schwartz was critical of the firearms analysis field in general and of Desmond’s ballistics methodology in particular. But Schwartz stopped short of saying Desmond’s bullet analysis conclusions in the Pitt County murder case were wrong.
“If she was right,” Schwartz said, “she was right for the wrong reasons.”