The Boston Herald was ordered Friday to pay $2.1 million for libeling a Superior Court judge in articles that portrayed him as lenient toward defendants and quoted him making insensitive comments about a 14-year-old rape victim.
In a , a jury deliberated for more than 20 hours over five days before finding that the newspaper and reporter David Wedge were guilty of libeling Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy. Another reporter was cleared.
Murphy claimed that Wedge misquoted him as telling lawyers involved in the case about the teenage rape victim: “Tell her to get over it.”
The quotation was included in a series of Herald articles in February 2002 that said Murphy had been criticized by prosecutors for lenient sentences, including eight years’ probation for a 17-year-old who was convicted of two rapes and an armed robbery.
Judge ‘elated’ at verdict
Murphy, 61, sued the Herald and its writers, claiming that his comments about the 14-year-old, which were made in a closed-door meeting with lawyers, were misquoted and taken out of context. The newspaper stood by its reporting.
“I’m feeling obviously very elated and very gratified about what’s happened so far,” Murphy said as he left court after the verdict was read.
The newspaper’s attorney did not immediately have any comment when the verdict was delivered, and the newspaper did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment. Wedge was not in the courtroom for the verdict.
Tom Mashberg, a Herald reporter and the paper’s union representative, defended the newspaper’s work and said its reporters believed the verdict would be overturned on appeal.
“David Wedge is an excellent reporter who worked tirelessly to expose the sentencing practices of a powerful sitting judge,” he said.
Target of national scorn
The Herald’s series was picked up by media outlets across the country, and Murphy was excoriated on talk radio shows. He became known as “Easy Ernie” and “Evil Ernie.”
He was bombarded with hate mail, death threats and calls for his removal from the bench. In an Internet chat room, someone suggested that Murphy’s own teenage daughters should be raped.
Two of Murphy’s daughters were so frightened that they went to live with other relatives and friends. Murphy said he bought a .357-caliber Magnum.
“I was afraid that someone was going to shoot me,” he testified.
Citing more than a dozen articles, he accused the newspaper of waging a “malicious and relentless campaign” that destroyed his personal and professional reputation. His attorney, Howard M. Cooper, accused Wedge of shoddy reporting and fabricating a sensational story to sell papers.
Cooper said Murphy had actually expressed concern for the teenage rape victim and asked court personnel and the defendant’s lawyer about making counseling available to her.
“Mr. Wedge and his editors at the Herald disregarded the truth that was staring them in the face,” Cooper said in his closing argument.
Unusual angles in lawsuit
Because Murphy is a public figure, his lawyer had to convince the jury that the Herald knew it was reporting false information or acted with a reckless disregard for the truth, a higher standard than the requirement a nonpublic figure must meet to win a libel case.
The case also was unusual because Murphy’s lawyers used not only the Herald articles, but also comments that Wedge made on national television to try to prove his “malicious state of mind.”
Wedge, the lead reporter on the story, appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” about three weeks after his first story ran in the Herald, a tabloid with a weekly circulation of more than 300,000.
When host Bill O’Reilly asked Wedge whether he was sure that Murphy said the rape victim should “get over it,” Wedge replied: “Yes. He made this comment to three lawyers. He knows he said it, and everybody else that knows this judge knows that he said it.”
Wedge, however, later said in a deposition that only one of the lawyers heard the comment firsthand and that the two others just repeated it to Wedge. The prosecutor who claims to have heard the comment, David Crowley, said in his deposition that he recalled Murphy saying the words “get over it” but could not remember the judge’s exact quotation.
Murphy has not revealed what he actually said to attorneys, but Cooper said that if the quotation was, “She’s got to get over it,” that would have shown he felt compassion toward the girl.
Wedge testified during the trial that he was certain that the quotation attributed to Murphy was correct. He testified that he never spoke with Murphy before the story ran, but he said he tried to contact the judge to verify the accuracy of the remark and was turned away.
“David Wedge thoroughly investigated Judge Murphy,” M. Robert Dushman, a lawyer for the Herald, said during the trial. “He had reliable sources. Mr. Wedge had absolutely no doubt about the truth.”
Dushman acknowledged “minor errors” in some of Wedge’s reporting but said he did a solid job overall.