Falsified Evidence

Photo of N&O building, from the documentary “Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal.”

In a libel case against Raleigh’s newspaper, one of two people falsified evidence.

Mandy Locke of the Raleigh News & Observer (N&O) may be an excellent journalist. She’s won numerous awards, and her reporting has possibly contributed to needed changes in various government agencies.

Yesterday, however, a jury determined that Locke and the N&O committed libel against former firearms analyst Beth Desmond.

Attorneys filled the courtroom for the closing arguments of this unlikely contest between a low-level agent at the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and a respected reporter at the state capitol’s newspaper of record. Libel suits against reporters and news outlets typically get dismissed because the legal standard to prove libel is almost impossible to meet.

Desmond’s case against Locke wasn’t typical.

In an article the N&O published on August 14, 2010, Locke alleged that experts suspected Desmond of falsifying evidence to help the prosecution secure a conviction in a murder trial. Locke’s article opens with a depiction of Desmond seemingly colluding with prosecutors, and readers undoubtedly assume foul play after reading.

Yet an independent analysis would eventually support Desmond’s conclusions about the evidence in question. Moreover, all the experts Locke cited for the article testified that they never told Locke they suspected anyone of falsifying evidence. In fact, all the experts were adamant — and email evidence supports their contention — that they had emphasized to Locke that they couldn’t make a determination about the evidence unless they physically examined it themselves.

Still, Locke and the N&O’s executive editor John Drescher remain undeterred in their stance that the reporting was good. They insist that Locke had accurately summarized the information she had from her sources.

For their closing arguments, the N&O’s attorneys relied more on melodrama, less on facts, to persuade the jury. At one point, they implored the jury to consider how many people have died to defend our First Amendment freedom of the press.

When they weren’t appealing to the jury’s patriotic duty to protect the Bill of Rights, the N&O’s attorneys were contriving a diversion from the relevant facts of the case. They claimed that Desmond had committed “testimonial overstatement” during the murder trial in question and that Locke’s article was a just criticism of such testimonial overstatement.

Locke’s article doesn’t mention testimonial overstatement.

Even with the truth on his side, Desmond’s attorney, James Johnson, faced an overwhelming challenge. Over the past four years, he has worked on the case mostly alone. Opposite him, the N&O had two experienced attorneys aided by two junior attorneys. Johnson was significantly outgunned.

Nevertheless, when Johnson humbly began his closing arguments, his conviction and directness reminded everyone in the courtroom what this lawsuit was really about: Mandy Locke’s claim that experts suspected Beth Desmond of falsifying evidence.

The simplicity of Johnson’s argument was far more persuasive than the spectacle of his opposition’s argument, and Johnson’s commitment and effort throughout the case have been heroic.

With the trial over now, the irony of the case is hard to miss when we consider Locke’s most obviously libelous statement:

Independent firearms experts who have studied the photographs [of the evidence] question whether Desmond knows anything about the discipline. Worse, some suspect she falsified the evidence to offer prosecutors the answer they wanted.

Either Desmond was incompetent or she falsified the evidence, according to Locke’s article. Yet neither was true, and so, with the tables turned, the jury had to determine whether Locke herself was just incompetent or whether she had falsified evidence. After repeatedly touting Locke’s journalistic accomplishments throughout the trial, the N&O’s attorneys unintentionally made the answer clear for the jury: Locke wasn’t incompetent. She falsified evidence.

Excellence most of the time doesn’t mean integrity all the time.

Note: The author’s original story on the Beth Desmond case is available here.