A libel lawsuit against The News & Observer, brought by a former State Bureau of Investigation ballistics expert who claimed she was wrongfully defamed, will move toward a trial.
The N.C. Court of Appeals had considered dismissing the suit after an oral argument last November. But in an opinion issued yesterday, the three-member panel of judges determined there was enough evidence for a jury to consider whether the plaintiff, Beth Desmond, was libeled in two articles published in 2010. One of those articles, “SBI relies on bullet analysis that critics deride as unreliable,” was part of an investigative series that revealed SBI shortcomings and won a major award.
That article was critical of Desmond, questioning her honesty and competency. In 2011 Desmond sued the N&O; its parent company, McClatchy Newspapers, and lead writer Mandy Locke. Desmond claimed that Locke acted with malice and reckless disregard for the truth. She sought a retraction, apology and monetary relief.
After a Wake County judge declined to dismiss the lawsuit, the N&O appealed the judge’s decision to the Court of Appeals.
Locke’s article centered on a 2006 criminal case in Pitt County. The previous year a 10-year-old boy was fatally struck by a bullet during a street fight. The man charged with the murder claimed he shot a bullet in the air in response to a nearby gunman who shot first. Two usable bullet fragments were recovered from the scene. Desmond analyzed the bullets’ impressions, which are made as the projectiles travel through the barrel. During the trial she testified that the bullets came from the same make and model gun.
In her lawsuit, Desmond cited 22 instances in Locke’s article she deemed libelous, including “Independent firearms experts who have studied the photographs questioned whether Desmond knows anything about the discipline,” and “Worse, some suspect she falsified evidence to offer prosecutors the answers they wanted.
In its opinion, the Court of Appeals cited several contested sentences that were not libelous. But the judges also cited six passages from the articles that a jury might possibly believe were written with actual malice.