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Judge Ernest B. Murphy with his daughters Heather Peck (left) and Adrienne Spelker, and his brother Howard (right).
Judge Ernest B. Murphy with his daughters Heather Peck (left) and Adrienne Spelker, and his brother Howard (right).

Jury orders Herald to pay $2.1m in libel case

A jury yesterday ordered the Boston Herald to pay Judge Ernest B. Murphy $2.1 million after finding that the paper and its reporter David Wedge libeled him in a series of stories that ran in 2002.

The jury deliberated for nearly 25 hours over five days before reaching its verdict late yesterday afternoon. Two jurors interviewed afterward criticized what they said was the Herald's inattention to accuracy.

The Herald coverage began with a Feb. 13, 2002, front-page story headlined "Murphy's Law" that criticized the superior court judge's sentencing practices as lenient and contained several explosive quotes attributed to him by unnamed sources.

The most critical quote, which referred to a 14-year-old rape victim, was: "She can't go through life as a victim. She's 14. She got raped. Tell her to get over it." Murphy denied making those remarks, and his lawyer, Howard Cooper, told the jury the Herald had published a "sensationalized supermarket tabloid story" that ruined Murphy's health and reputation.

"We felt that they misquoted or changed the sentence," juror Jose Barros, 53, a community organizer for the Dudley Street Initiative, said in a telephone interview. "That's the main thing for this."

Barros, like another juror, said the verdict should be read as a warning: The press has to be held accountable for what it prints. He said the jury blamed Herald editors more than Wedge. The editors, he said, should have tried harder to check the information.

The unusual case of a judge suing a newspaper has attracted considerable interest in the media and legal circles.

Because he is a public official, Murphy had to prove not only that the Herald stories were false and defamatory; he also had to show by "clear and convincing" evidence that the paper acted with actual malice, meaning it was aware that the material it was publishing was probably false.

In reaching its verdict, the jury of six men and six women had to evaluate 61 statements over the course of the stories and assign a dollar value for each finding of libel. The jurors concluded that 22 of the 61 statements constituted libel, they deadlocked on two of the statements, and found no libel in 37 others. Of the $2,090,000 awarded to Murphy, $1,375,000 stemmed from 11 repetitions of the "tell her to get over it" or "get over it" quote that the paper attributed to the judge. The jury also awarded $350,000 to Murphy for statements Wedge made when discussing the case on the Fox News show "The O'Reilly Factor."

As of yesterday, the award actually amounted to more than $2.7 million, because civil damage claims accrue interest at an annual rate of 12 percent starting the day the case is filed, said Cooper's co-counsel David Rich. Since the case was filed nearly three years ago, the Herald owes approximately $640,000 in interest on the award, he said.

The jury foreman said in a brief interview after the verdict that the jury found that Wedge and the Herald acted with malice because they repeatedly used the "tell her to get over it quote" without attempting to confirm whether it was true. "What happened was that, since the quote kept on getting repeated and the research wasn't done with multiple sources, the story just snowballed," said Steven M. Barbour, 45, of Dorchester. In general, he said, "the professionalism of the job was very poor."

In an emotional scene outside the Suffolk Superior Court room after the verdict, Murphy embraced Cooper and Rich. He said he felt vindicated by the decision and asserted that the verdict represented a message for the media.

"I'm very, very gratified that the jury found for me in this case," he said. "I think that what happened to me should be an example to the media in this country. Innocent people, their lives can be altered and they can be hurt immeasurably." In a statement, Herald publisher Patrick J. Purcell said the paper will appeal: "We'd like to thank the jury for their diligence on this very complicated case. However, we believe the First Amendment allows news organizations to provide uninhibited coverage of government and public figures and we will continue to cover them vigorously. We have complete faith in our reporter David Wedge, and we are confident this decision will be reversed on appeal."

"I don't think the evidence supports the verdict," said the Herald's lead lawyer, Robert Dushman.The verdict, he added, "reflects to some extent the views the general public has about the press these days."

Wedge could not be reached for comment last night.During the trial, presided over by Judge Charles R. Johnson, Wedge testified that he relied on three credible sources in the Bristol district attorney's office, one of whom was a witness, to obtain the quotes attributed to the judge.

The witness, former assistant district attorney David Crowley, testified that Wedge correctly reported the "gist" of Murphy's remarks, but acknowledged he was concerned after the article appeared, in part because of qualms over the accuracy of the "tell her to get over it" statement.

Globe correspondent Heather Allen contributed to this report.

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