Wake jury awards $1.5 million against N&O in libel trial

A Wake County jury returned a $1.5 million verdict Tuesday against The News & Observer and reporter Mandy Locke after a three-week libel trial.

The jury took about a day to decide that the N&O libeled State Bureau of Investigation agent Beth Desmond in six statements the paper published in 2010 in an investigative article. The jury’s award represents damages to Desmond to compensate her for suffering, humiliation, lost wages and medical expenses she incurred as a result of the N&O coverage.

The jury will now return to Wake County Superior Court on Wednesday to hear additional arguments in the punitive phase of the trial, at which point the 12 county residents will be asked by Desmond to award additional financial damages against the newspaper.

At trial, Desmond and her lawyer, James Johnson, told jurors the N&O article triggered events that resulted in Desmond developing post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, Desmond, a forensic firearms examiner, testified she had to request a transfer within the SBI because she was no longer capable of testifying in court about her lab work without experiencing panic attacks.

“We’re obviously relieved they’ve come back and awarded a verdict in her favor,” Johnson said. He said he and Desmond will defer further comment until after the jury decides on punitive damages and the trial is over.

The N&O said its coverage was accurate and performed a valuable public service.

“Our stories in 2010 about the SBI raised important questions about how that agency investigates and how agents testify,” said N&O executive editor John Drescher. “After the stories were published, numerous changes were made in how the SBI and the state crime lab work.”

The story about Desmond’s work was the final installment of a four-part investigative series titled “Agents’ Secrets.”

“Our reporters and editors worked hard to tell the stories fully and accurately,” Drescher said. “We appreciate the hard work of the jury but we respectfully disagree with its decision and plan to appeal.”

In the main 2010 article, the N&O said that independent firearms experts questioned whether Desmond knew anything about ballistics analysis. The story also said some firearms experts suspected Desmond had falsified evidence to help Pitt County prosecutors win a murder conviction in 2006.

Desmond said on the witness stand that the N&O essentially accused her of committing a crime. Her colleagues and supervisors didn’t believe the article and she was not demoted at work, but the story was recirculated by other publications and by bloggers, and brought up by some defense attorneys when Desmond testified. Desmond said she was deeply shaken and is still recovering.

At issue were six statements, five published in Locke’s August 2010 story and one published in a follow-up article written by reporter Joseph Neff in December 2010. The jury’s task was to determine whether the N&O accurately quoted or paraphrased the sources who allegedly questioned Desmond’s qualifications and made critical statements about her lab work and courtroom testimony.

Four sources who spoke to Locke in 2010 testified in court they were either misquoted or taken out of context.

The jury found that all six statements the paper published to be materially false – that is, that the sources never told Locke what was attributed to them. To decide in Desmond’s favor, the jury also had to find that there was strong, clear and convincing evidence that Locke and the N&O knew the statements were false or had serious doubts about their truthfulness.

The jurors began deliberating late Monday afternoon and reached a unanimous verdict mid-afternoon Tuesday. They include a security guard at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant, a pool-and-spa business owner, a Duke University administrator, a computer engineer, a Cisco Systems sales representative, a Wake County food and lodging inspector, a retired IBM administrator, and a daycare worker.

The jury awarded Desmond $1.5 million for five statements in the August story and $11,500 for the sixth statement in the December story.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski