Two News & Observer reporters have been selected as finalists for a national journalism award for their work about the State Bureau of Investigation, the sponsors announced Thursday.
Mandy Locke and Joseph Neff are among four finalists for the Michael Kelly Award, presented by the Atlantic Media Company to reporters who exhibit “the fearless pursuit and expression of truth.” Kelly was the editor of National Journal and The Atlantic Monthly who died while covering the war in Iraq in 2003.
Locke and Neff researched and wrote a four-part series, “Agents’ Secrets,” last August. It revealed that some SBI agents were bullying vulnerable suspects and that some lab analysts had pushed past the accepted bounds of science to deliver results that helped prosecutors’ cases. Shortly after, an independent audit ordered by Attorney General Roy Cooper showed that the lab had withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases.
As a result, the SBI’s director and lab director were replaced. The General Assembly has passed new laws making it clear that the state crime lab works for the full justice system, not just prosecutors, and making it a crime for analysts or other law-enforcement agents to withhold evidence. One defendant who had served 12 years in jail has been freed, and others are challenging the SBI’s work in court.
Locke, 32, came to the N&O in 2004. She has written extensively about child welfare and criminal justice, producing investigative series about shaken babies and the state’s lax attitude toward speeding enforcement. She also covered the case of Greg Taylor, a Wake County man who served 17 years for murder before being exonerated early in 2010. It was that case that led to the “Agents’ Secrets” series.
Neff, 51, is a veteran investigative reporter who also has written extensively about criminal justice. His stories helped lead to the exoneration of Alan Gell, an innocent man on death row, and to the conviction of former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps. He also laid bare the prosecutorial misconduct of former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong in the Duke lacrosse case and in 2008, he worked on a series about the state’s crippled probation system.
Locke and Neff are among four finalists for the award; others include journalists from The Associated Press, Mother Jones magazine and Slate. The finalists will attend a dinner in Washington later this month, when the winner will be announced.