News & Observer executive editor John Drescher told a Wake County jury Monday that investigative journalism is the newspaper’s core mission, but noted that such articles are “extremely expensive” to put together and “don’t sell papers.”
Drescher testified in a libel trial being pursued by State Bureau of Investigation agent Beth Desmond, who is suing the News & Observer Publishing Co., parent company McClatchy and reporter Mandy Locke.
In 2010, the N&O ran a four-part investigative series about the SBI, focusing the fourth article on Desmond’s role as a firearms analyst in a 2006 murder trial in Pitt County. That story said independent firearms experts questioned whether Desmond knew anything about ballistics analysis and that some experts suspected she falsified evidence to help Pitt County prosecutors win a murder conviction.
Desmond’s lawyer, James Johnson, asked Drescher about William Tobin, a former chief metallurgist for the FBI, who was quoted in the story as saying: “It raises the question of whether she did an analysis at all.”
Tobin had emailed Locke Aug. 3, 2010, just 11 days before the story ran, explaining to Locke that he does not perform firearms analysis and that his criticism of forensic analysis was not directed at any particular case.
“Did anybody on the (investigative) team come to you and say, ‘John, we have this pretty harsh quote, and the email saying he doesn’t do firearms examination’?” Johnson asked.
When Drescher said no, Johnson asked: “So, no ‘Houston we have a problem’?”
Johnson then showed the jury the April 20, 2016 video deposition of Inam Rashid, Desmond’s primary care physician, who has treated her since 2007. Rashid’s treatment records showed that Desmond had a history of anxiety preceding the article and had complained to him of chest pains, lightheadedness, back spasms, tightness of the throat, heart palpitations and mood swings.
She had been to the hospital emergency room a couple of times before 2009 but was not experiencing significant problems that year. In that time period, before the N&O story ran, Desmond had also sought medical opinions from an allergist, gastroenterologist, urologist and otolaryngologist, Rashid said.
In January 2011, about five months after the N&O story, Desmond complained of vertigo and nausea, but subsequently improved, Rashid said. She had also gained weight by 2012 and was experiencing anxiety when testifying in court, he said, but she was otherwise doing well and was productive at work.
For the past four years Desmond has been seeing a mental health therapist. Two mental health experts who diagnosed or treated Desmond said last week that Desmond developed post-traumatic stress disorder after the N&O story appeared.
Another doctor, Dennis Darcey of Durham, assessed Desmond every three years as part of the SBI’s occupational health safety program. In June 2011, after Desmond complained of stress, sleeplessness and fatigue, he referred her to counseling.
Desmond’s husband, Brian Desmond, acknowledged in testimony that his wife was a “nervous Nellie,” but said the N&O story turned her from a cheerful, outgoing wife and mother, into a sullen, fearful introvert.
“The anxiety was compounded, obviously, exponentially,” he said. “Her normal anxiety became fear.”
Brian Desmond said: “She had been basically assaulted on the front page of the paper.”