Firearms experts testify in N&O libel trial

Former FBI firearms analyst Stephen Bunch told Wake County jurors Monday that Beth Desmond, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, performed reliable lab analysis of bullet fragments for a Pitt County murder trial in 2006, but overstated her conclusions at trial.

Bunch was one of four firearms experts interviewed by N&O reporter Mandy Locke in 2010 for an article that is now the subject of a libel trial in Wake County Superior Court. Some of the experts are expected to testify that their comments were misrepresented in the N&O article.

Desmond is suing Locke, the News & Observer Publishing Co., and N&O parent company McClatchy Newspapers about six statements in the story; the trial concluded a third day of testimony Monday.

In his off-the-record interviews with Locke for the August 2010 story, Bunch raised questions about the reliability of Desmond’s analysis, based on photographs he had analyzed of the bullet fragments.

After the N&O article ran, Bunch, a former chief of the FBI’s Firearms and Toolmarks Unit, was hired by the Pitt County district attorney to conduct an independent analysis of the same bullet fragments that Desmond had previously analyzed in the murder case.

Bunch said Monday that his 2010 conclusions generally agreed with Desmond’s 2006 analysis. However, N&O lawyer John Bussian noted that Bunch included two calibers as possible weapons, whereas Desmond listed only one – a semiautomatic 9 millimeter Hi-Point gun – which helped eliminate the possibility of a second shooter in the Pitt County murder.

In the Pitt murder trial, Desmond had testified with “absolute certainty” there was only one type of gun used. Bunch said the evidence didn’t point to certainty.

“That one sentence, that one place in the testimony, that’s going a little bit too far,” Bunch said of Desmond’s 2006 court testimony. “It’s not an exact science, after all. You may get different results from different examiners.”

Another firearms expert, Liam Hendrikse, testified Monday afternoon that he was misquoted. But in an email Hendrikse sent to Locke 12 days after the article appeared, he mentioned “a few minor errors” and suggested he and Locke “grab a drink” sometime.

Desmond concluded her testimony on Monday, explaining how she asked to be transferred in 2013 and again in 2014 to another job within the SBI. Both requests were granted. Desmond had testified Friday about her prolonged anxiety after the N&O story ran. She now oversees a unit that runs background checks on teachers, day care workers and others.

Bussian asked Desmond about her analysis methodology and about her court testimony in the Pitt County murder case. Bussian then turned to Desmond’s career, which included a dance scholarship at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York and a successful stint as a ballet dancer.

Bussian asked Desmond about an article in The Juilliard Journal, in which she told the alumni publication in late 2011 that “testifying is basically a performance art.”

Desmond said that she was simply trying to explain to the Juilliard Journal interviewer how professional dancing prepared her for a career in ballistics analysis, both of which require an aptitude for pattern recognition.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski