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Jury clears Globe in lawyer libel case

CAMBRIDGE -- A Middlesex Superior Court jury concluded yesterday that The Boston Globe did not libel Stoneham lawyer Stephen H. Columbus when it reported in 1999 that he used political connections to have a house built for him by vocational high school students.

After deliberating for about four hours, the jury said Columbus had failed to prove that the front-page Sunday story about favoritism in house-building programs run by two vocational schools had made false statements about him, directly or by innuendo.

The jury also said that neither the Globe nor Walter V. Robinson, the author of the story and now editor of the newspaper's Spotlight Team, had inflicted emotional distress on the 43-year-old lawyer. Columbus had contended that the story led to depression and hurt his law practice.

"We're certainly pleased with the outcome," said Globe lawyer Jonathan M. Albano. "From our perspective, the article always was about the local government process and flaws with that process. We never believed it was an attack on Stephen Columbus."

Robinson, a longtime Globe reporter and editor, expressed gratitude to the jury, calling them a "group of thoughtful citizens who believe that it is important that newspapers report aggressively on their behalf."

With the consent of both legal teams, 14 jurors deliberated. Twelve sided with the Globe, according to the jury forewoman, and two with Columbus, resulting in a verdict in favor of the newspaper.

Columbus said only that "the jury has spoken."

The case stemmed from a Sept. 5, 1999 story about how students at Northeast Regional Vocational Technical High School in Wakefield and Shawsheen Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Billerica built four houses for relatives of local officials and of an influential businessman.

Under the headline "Home Sweet (Deal) Home," the story said few residents entered lotteries run by the schools to get student carpenters, electricians, and plumbers to build them homes with no charge for labor. Some of the winners, the article said, appeared to benefit from political connections.

Among the winners featured was Columbus, a lifelong Stoneham resident and son of the town's building inspector, Robert Columbus. The article said the elder Columbus "engineered a last-minute approval required for his son's application, an apparent violation of the state conflict-of-interest law."

In his closing argument Tuesday, Columbus's lawyer, Jeffrey A. Gorlick, said the story falsely portrayed his client as a "corrupt insider," "sleazebag," and "ingrate."

After yesterday's verdict, Gorlick said that Judge Frank M. Gaziano's instructions to the jury may have inadvertently led jurors to believe that Columbus, to win his case, had to prove the article reflected malice by the newspaper instead of negligence.

Gorlick is considering an appeal.

Albano said Gorlick's point was moot because the jury concluded that the article was neither false nor defamatory.

Albano had urged jurors to "take the measure" of Robinson and Columbus, each of whom testified for parts of three days. The jury forewoman, Barbara E. Proia, said they did that.

In an interview after the verdict, Proia, a 44-year-old Framingham day-care provider, said jurors found Robinson more credible than Columbus and believed the journalist had strived to accurately report about a program whose rules favored the well-connected.

"We all felt what he said was real," she said. "He really knew what he was talking about. . . . I really felt that they were telling the truth, the Globe."

Proia said further that whatever emotional distress Columbus suffered stemmed from construction problems with the house, not the Globe story. (Gorlick had said that the house was unfinished and so badly constructed that Columbus needed to spend $338,000 on top of the $125,000 he spent to buy the lot.)

"The stress of building a house, that's what put [Columbus] over the edge," Proia said.

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