Clinical social worker Jae Brainard characterized her patient as a nervous wreck – agitated by fluorescent lights, terrified of performing her job, experiencing nightmares and prone to spontaneous sobbing episodes. Brainard believes the 51-year-old patient, whom she’s been treating for the past four years, may need mental health counseling “for a long time.”
Brainard’s patient is State Bureau of Investigation agent Beth Desmond, who is pursuing a libel lawsuit against The News & Observer, which wrote an article in 2010 critical of Desmond’s bullet analysis in a 2006 Pitt County murder case. Brainard’s testimony before a Wake County Superior Court jury about Desmond’s emotional suffering is essential to Desmond’s case.
Desmond alleges the N&O article caused her to experience symptoms that Brainard marked down in her therapy session notes as post-traumatic stress disorder. SBI managers also told jurors Thursday they noted a marked change in Desmond’s demeanor after the article ran, from a cheerful, outgoing, eager-to-please colleague to an anxious and withdrawn crime lab analyst unable to focus on her work.
The N&O story was the fourth in an investigative series about the SBI; the article stated, among other things, that independent firearms experts suspected that Desmond falsified evidence in the 2006 murder trial to help Pitt County prosecutors win a conviction. Desmond says the paper accused her of breaking the law. Still, her supervisors didn’t believe the N&O story and Desmond wasn’t reprimanded at work. But she later sought two transfers because she said she had lost confidence and her performance deteriorated.
Brainard described Desmond in turns as agitated, scared, tearful, isolated, hyper-vigilant, worried, distraught and terrified.
“I wouldn’t write ‘terrified’ if that is not how I experienced it,” Brainard said of her therapy session notes. “She felt terrified.”
Brainard said Desmond is doing much better now, thanks in part to therapy and coping strategies. Brainard said one of her therapy session notes – “pursuit of lawsuit means everything to me” – suggests that Desmond is still seeking closure.
“She was reiterating again that the pursuit of the lawsuit meant everything to her,” Brainard said. “Once again, she can’t find peace without this.”
When N&O lawyer John Bussian asked Brainard if litigation might contribute to Desmond’s stress, Brainard said: “It’s not my job to have talked her into or out of what she wants for herself.”
Brainard also clarified to Bussian that she is not saying that the N&O story caused Desmond’s symptoms.
John Byrd, the current director of the State Crime Lab and an Army brigadier general in the North Carolina National Guard, said the N&O story had a powerful effect on Desmond. She was sleep-deprived and wept when he spoke to her about how things were going for her. Byrd’s military training suggested a potentially serious situation.
“Candidly, I was afraid that I was seeing maybe some inclinations of suicide,” Byrd said.