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Judge apologizes for official stationery use but not contents of letter

Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy yesterday publicly apologized for using official court stationery to write a letter demanding that the publisher of the Boston Herald pay him $3.2 million to end the judge's libel suit against the newspaper.

In a letter sent to the Boston Globe the day after the Herald complained about what it called "bullying" by Murphy, the judge said he did not realize it was "unlawful" to use Superior Court letterhead for the first of two letters he sent to the publisher, Patrick J. Purcell, earlier this year.

"In any event, I hereby publically (sic) and unqualifiedly apologize for the use of my Superior Court stationary (sic) to have written a personal letter to Mr. Purcell" on Feb. 20, Murphy said in a brief letter to the Globe.

But Murphy made no apologies for the content of the letters, which a Herald lawyer at a Tuesday news conference called a "stark and sad attempt to bully the Herald" into abandoning its constitutional right to appeal a $2 million libel verdict awarded to the judge in February.

Bruce W. Sanford, a Washington-based lawyer retained by the Herald to appeal the verdict, said the judge was right to apologize but Murphy's use of official letterhead was the least of his offenses.

"When judges write letters of the sort that he wrote -- and I'm talking about the content -- it erodes public confidence in the fairness of the judiciary and the judicial system, and that, it seems to me, was what his biggest offense was," Sanford said in an interview.

The Herald has requested that Boston Municipal Court Chief Justice Charles R. Johnson, who presided at the libel trial, ask the state Commission on Judicial Conduct to investigate whether Murphy violated the Code of Judicial Conduct, Sanford said. The request came in court papers filed Tuesday asking Johnson to throw out the libel verdict.

Johnson said through a spokeswoman yesterday that he could not discuss the case. Jill Pearson, executive director of the commission, declined to say whether a complaint has been filed, citing rules that keep such matters confidential unless they result in formal charges, which is rare.

The code of conduct is clear about the use of official court stationery for personal business. It warns judges to "distinguish between proper and improper use of the prestige of office in all of their activities" and says that "judicial letterhead and the judicial title must not be used in conducting a judge's personal business."

Murphy's battle with the newspaper stems from a series of Herald stories that he contends libeled him in 2002. The stories, which began with the front-page headline "Murphy's Law," portrayed him as a lenient judge who made inflammatory and insensitive remarks about two crime victims.

On Feb. 18, a Suffolk jury ordered the Herald to pay Murphy $2.09 million after finding that the paper and its reporter David Wedge had libeled him. Johnson later trimmed the judgment by $85,000.

As the Herald began preparing its appeal, Murphy last month asked Johnson to bar the newspaper from selling its assets, saying that financial problems at the tabloid threatened to make it impossible for him to collect his libel judgment.

At a news conference at the Boston Harbor Hotel Tuesday evening, Sanford said that Murphy's attempt to freeze the Herald's assets would "cripple" its business. But Sanford also took aim at the two handwritten letters Murphy wrote Purcell on Feb. 20 and March 18.

In the letters, copies of which were filed with a court brief, Murphy proposed a face-to-face meeting with Purcell and a representative of the newspaper's insurance company and urged Purcell not to inform lawyers at the Herald's principal law firm, Brown Rudnick, that the meeting was taking place.

Murphy proposed that it would be in Purcell's interest to bring a check to that meeting for $3.2 million, "shake my hand, and let me walk away with that check."

The judge's lawyers have said the award is growing by more than $26,800 a month because of interest.

Murphy also wrote that the Herald stood "ZERO chance" of success on appeal and warned Purcell that it would be a "BIG mistake" to show one of the letters to anyone except the insurance company lawyers.

But Howard Cooper, a lawyer for Murphy, dismissed as "grossly misinformed" Sanford's contention that the letters were inappropriate. Cooper said Murphy and Purcell met twice before trial to resolve the dispute and agreed to keep lines of communication open.

Cooper said he has run into Purcell and the Herald's trial lawyer, M. Robert Dushman, since the trial and never heard a complaint about the letters.

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