Wake County

N&O reporter Joseph Neff defends SBI series in libel trial

News & Observer reporter Joseph Neff said he never doubted the truth of articles the newspaper ran in 2010 about the State Bureau of Investigation that are now the subject of a libel trial in Wake County Superior Court.

“No doubts,” said Neff, a 27-year newsroom veteran who wrote one of the articles and contributed to the other.

To win the libel suit, SBI agent Beth Desmond has to convince the jury not only that the N&O articles contained falsehoods about her, but that the N&O’s lead reporter on the coverage, Mandy Locke, knew or suspected she was printing lies.

The fourth article of the series, “Agents’ Secrets,” focused on criticisms of Desmond’s ballistics analysis. The story said independent firearms experts questioned whether Desmond knew anything about forensic science. It also said some firearms experts suspected Desmond falsified evidence to help Pitt County prosecutors win a murder conviction in 2006.

Neff wrote a follow-up article in December 2010 about an independent ballistics analysis of the same two bullet fragments that Desmond had analyzed in the Pitt County murder case four years earlier. That report was inconclusive but leaned toward Desmond’s 2006 conclusions that the two bullet fragments came from the same type of gun.

Much of Neff’s time on the witness stand Wednesday was spent answering questions from Desmond’s lawyer, James Johnson, about gaps in the newspaper’s internal process of vetting and publishing articles.

In one instance, Johnson homed in on what is known as a subhead – a mini-headline inserted within a longer story. Johnson noted that the subhead simply said “same gun,” whereas Desmond had said the bullets came from the same make of gun. Desmond’s testimony on this point was important because it helped eliminate the possibility of a second gunman in the Pitt County case.

“Are you OK with that, with the word ‘make’ left out of the subheading for spacing reasons?” Johnson asked. “Would you agree or disagree that the exclusion of the word ‘make’ changes the meaning of the subheading?”

Neff said he didn’t write the subhead, then added “same gun” would be misleading only if a reader read just the subhead and skipped the rest of the story.

Johnson asked: Shouldn’t headlines, subheads and other typographical elements meet the highest standards of accuracy? Neff agreed, but said all the parts have to be read together to make sense.

Johnson reminded Neff that N&O reporters knew that an independent analysis of the bullets had been planned, but published their story anyway before all the answers were in.

“There was no rush to publish this story,” Johnson said. “You could have always waited to publish some other time.”

Said Neff: “I believe that publishing this story is one of the reasons these bullets got re-examined.”

The N&O story ran in Aug. 14, 2010. The independent re-examination of the bullets was not completed until Dec. 8 and not released until Dec. 30.

“If we in the newspaper business wait for government officials to follow up on their promises,” Neff said, “half the stories wouldn’t get written.

“We’re a daily newspaper, not a seed catalog that comes out every three or four months.”

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski