Firearms analyst Liam Hendrikse described to a Wake County jury Tuesday how he negotiated with a reporter and editors from The News & Observer over three weeks about a retraction he had requested from the newspaper.
Hendrikse complained to the N&O in a 2010 email that one of the quotes attributed to him in a N&O article that year “makes me appear to be a lunatic.” He said in an email that the article, which criticized the State Bureau of Investigation’s ballistics analysis in criminal trials, “has already caused more problems than I could have imagined.”
The article had caused a stir in the firearms analyst world and Hendrikse, who works near Toronto, Canada, was getting worried that lawyers wouldn’t hire him on their cases because of his quotes in the story. In addition to saying that ballistics analysis is fallible, he was also quoted questioning the forensics analysis done by SBI agent Beth Desmond in a 2006 murder trial in Pitt County.
Hendrikse was one of four experts interviewed for the 2010 article, which reported that independent firearms experts questioned whether Desmond knew anything about the discipline and also said that some suspect she falsified the evidence to help prosecutors win a conviction in the 2006 murder trial. Desmond later sued the The News & Observer Publishing Co., and McClatchy Newspapers, the N&O’s parent company, and Mandy Locke, the reporter who wrote the 2010 story quoting Hendrikse and other experts.
Several experts interviewed by Locke are expected to say they never told her that Desmond falsified evidence.
In Wake County Superior Court, Hendrikse testified on the fourth day of the libel trial. He initially had few concerns about the N&O’s story. But he said after he started feeling heat from a blogger, he asked for a retraction 40 days after the story ran. In an email exchange shown to the jury, N&O investigation editor Steve Riley asked Hendrikse for clarifications on his statements, and set up a phone meeting, but ultimately the paper decided Locke’s article was accurate and there would be no correction or retraction.
The N&O asked Hendrikse if he wanted to write a letter to be published in the newspaper, but he declined the offer because the subject was too complex.
“I accepted their expertise in journalism,” Hendrikse testified calmly. “I decided to move on...”
Also testifying for Desmond on Tuesday was her former supervisor, Neal Morin, who retired from the SBI in February. He said Desmond had a very “bubbly” personality before the N&O story appeared. He defended Desmond’s integrity, and said the story “killed her confidence.”
Out of the presence of the jury, N&O lawyer Mark Prak asked Morin about a December 2010 interim inspection report by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, which criticized Desmond’s work in the Pitt County murder case. The report said Desmond had insufficient documentation and lacked work notes, and said it could not reach the same conclusion Desmond did in her lab analysis in the 2006 case, which involved the murder of a 10-year-old child.
Morin, who was not interviewed for the 2010 story, disagreed with the ASCLD’s assessment. The report, which was given to the SBI four months after the N&O story ran, has been excluded by the judge as evidence in the trial.
“ASCLD had been accrediting the (SBI) crime lab for 15 years,” Morin said. “And ASCLD didn’t have any problems with our procedures until that time.”