The Supreme Court of North Carolina will hear an appeal made by The News and Observer Publishing Company and former N&O reporter Mandy Locke in a libel case brought by an agent in the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
Justices for the N.C. Supreme Court announced their decision Friday afternoon.
The N.C. Supreme Court has seven members. Three members of the court had to agree to hear the appeal before it could be considered by the full court.
In December, a state appeals court ruled in favor of Agent Beth Desmond, who had sued The News & Observer for libel and won $6 million from a Wake County jury after a 2016 trial that lasted more than three weeks.
The appeals court said evidence from the trial “tended to show that the primary objective of defendants [the N&O] was sensationalism rather than truth.”
Desmond filed the suit in 2011.
Desmond said at trial and on appeal that she was libeled five times in an April 2010 article by reporter Locke and once in a December 2010 article by reporter Joseph Neff. Both Neff and Locke, as well as investigative editor Steve Riley, have since left the N&O.
In the original article, Locke wrote that experts questioned the reliability of Desmond’s lab analysis of bullet fragments in a 2006 Pitt County murder case involving the shooting of a 10-year-old boy.
Desmond said the N&O story accused her of committing a crime and that Locke misquoted forensics experts commenting on her analysis. During the trial, the experts said they were not criticizing Desmond’s forensics work, but rather making general statements about the limitations of forensics as a science to trace bullet fragments back to a specific gun.
The N&O argued at trial that Locke reasonably interpreted the statements from the experts to reach an independent conclusion.
The N&O subsequently argued on appeal that Desmond failed to prove her defamation case under the state’s stringent legal standards and that the staggering amount of the verdict would stifle aggressive news coverage of public officials.
Several news organizations filed briefs with the appeals court, saying that if Desmond’s $6 million case is allowed to stand, it would cause “intolerable self-censorship” by journalists who might hold back on controversial articles, fearing potential lawsuits.
Lawyers for the N&O are expected to file their brief within 30 days.
Some information in this article was derived from The News & Observer’s previous reporting by former staff writer John Murawski.