SBI agent’s libel trial against N&O gets underway

Attorney James Johnson told a Wake County jury Thursday that The News & Observer published falsehoods about Beth Desmond, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, in an investigative series that appeared in the newspaper in 2010.

Johnson’s overview of the case kicked off the trial of Desmond’s libel suit against the N&O, which is expected to last several weeks in Wake County Superior Court. Desmond’s libel suit focuses on six statements the N&O published about Desmond’s work as an SBI firearms analyst, including a statement that independent firearms experts suspected that Desmond falsified evidence to help prosecutors win convictions.

Johnson, Desmond’s lawyer, told the jurors that four experts who were interviewed by N&O reporter Mandy Locke for the article will testify that they never told Locke that Desmond falsified evidence. The four experts will also say in court that their statements to Locke were either taken out of context or misconstrued by Locke, Johnson said.

Johnson also told the jury that Desmond, who still works for the SBI, experienced a career setback and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the article. Desmond has sued Locke, The News & Observer Publishing Co., and McClatchy Newspapers, the N&O’s parent company.

“She began to be attacked with the article in court,” Johnson said. “It really made it difficult for her to continue working.”

The N&O’s lawyer, John Bussian, told the jury that the N&O was one of the first newspapers in the country to investigate the nationwide problem of misuse of forensic evidence in criminal trials by the prosecution. Bussian said the paper will demonstrate in the trial that Locke’s sources were accurately quoted and that Locke accurately summarized her interviews and other research.

Bussian said the story was reported “without an agenda, without any ill feeling toward Beth Desmond, without any ill feeling toward anyone.”

The N&O wrote in 2010 that Desmond’s trial testimony was more definitive than her lab report and helped prosecutors win the conviction of Jemaul Green for the 2005 shooting death of 10-year-old Christopher Foggs, who was killed during a street fight between two groups of rival teens in Pitt County. Desmond’s testimony eliminated the possibility of a second shooter, The N&O reported.

In a libel case, a public official must not only convince a jury that the media outlet published information that was false, but that the journalists involved in the story’s publication knew it was false or had serious doubts about it. Additionally, public officials alleging libel must also show that the published falsehoods damaged their reputations or resulted in some other harm.

The trial continues Friday with testimony by Desmond.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski