RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) - The Raleigh News and Observer defamed a state firearms examiner with "bitter, underhanded and dishonest journalism" to try "to win awards for their articles," the examiner claims in court.
Beth Desmond, an agent with the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation (SBI) sued the News and Observer, McClatchy Newspapers, the News & Observer's executive editor and its investigative reporting team for a series of stories that appeared in August 2011 and chronicled alleged problems with agency and its crime labs.
The reporters of the series won the Michael Kelly Award, a national journalism award, and $25,000 for work exhibiting "the fearless pursuit and expression of truth," according to the complaint.
But Desmond says that was hardly the case for the Aug. 14, 2010 story, "SBI relies on bullet analysis that critics deride as unreliable," and a December 2010 follow-up article headlined "Report backs SBI ballistics."
Desmond claim that both articles falsely reported that she strayed well beyond ballistics reports in court testimony in two related criminal cases stemming from the 2005 murder of a 10-year-old child.
Desmond was the only forensic firearms examiner to testify at both trials, which resulted in one murder conviction and the conviction of a second person for aiding and abetting the crime, according to the 27-page complaint.
Desmond claims that in the first of these articles, "Defendants attempted to portray, albeit falsely and inaccurately, S/A [special agent] Desmond's testimony in the above-referenced murder trials as unreliable and incredible in an effort to bolster the apparent significance of their overall series on the SBI."
She claims there were several problems with the article, including that she linked a bullet to casings at the crime scene - such linkage is impossible, she says - and her alleged identification of the murder suspect; she claims she never claimed to have identified any shooters, nor how many there were.
Desmond claims both articles contained errors of fact, and mischaracterized the nature of her testimony.
She claims that the articles portrayed her as backing her testimony with "absolute certainty," but that she never expressed any such thing.
Desmond says she "testified outside of the presence of the jury that she was certain that the bullets and casings came from a 9 mm Hi-Point firearm. In the presence of the jury, S/A Desmond testified that there was not enough detail to conclusively determine whether they were fired from the same gun."
She claims the newspaper relied on multiple so-called "experts" to discredit her work, who were not qualified to render such opinions, and in some cases, did not know the specifics of what they were being asked to comment on.
In sum, Desmond says, the defendants failed to do due diligence to ensure the accuracy of their reporting.
"In an effort to complete their sensational series of articles about the SBI, defendants engaged in bitter, underhanded, and dishonest journalism, including publishing outright falsehoods about S/A Desmond, in order to finish their story and to win awards for their articles," the complaint states.
Desmond claims that an independent examination of her work, conducted after the series was published, supported her work. And she claims that that when the newspaper published a follow-up to report on this, it used the opportunity to repeat most, if not all, of its original, erroneous assertions.
She claims the defendants inflicted upon her "severe emotional distress, mental anguish, humiliation, embarrassment, injury to moral character, and injury to reputation."
She says her career has been dramatically affected, that she has been "cross-examined during subsequent trials regarding defendants' false accusations. This has impacted her effectiveness as a witness and thus impacted her value as a forensic analyst for the SBI."
As a result, Desmond says, she is being assigned cases that are less likely to go to trial, and has "suffered a loss of future earnings capacity."
She seeks compensatory and punitive damages for libel, court costs, and a public retraction.
In a statement published by the newspaper, defendant Executive Editor John Drescher defends the series as "public service journalism." He added: "There is no merit to this lawsuit. Our series was accurate and fair, and was a public service."
Desmond sued in Wake County Superior Court, then withdrew it without prejudice and refilled in the same court.
In addition to the News and Observer and Executive Editor Drescher, the defendants include McClatchy Newspapers Inc.; The McClatchy Company; Mandy Locke; Joseph Neff; Travis Long; Shawn Rocco; Steve Riley; Brooke Cain; David Raynor; Scott Sharpe; Bill Dupre; Leland Senn; Teresa Kriegsman; Tim Lee; Lamonte Garrett; and Andrew Roman.
Desmond is represented by James T. Johnson of Raleigh, N.C.
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