BOSTON The Boston Herald was ordered today 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 case closely watched by the news media and legal communities, 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, Jules Crittenden, was cleared by the jury, while a columnist and another reporter were cleared before the case went to the jury.
Murphy claimed Wedge misquoted him as telling lawyers involved in the case about the teenage rape victim: "Tell her to get over it."
The quote was included in a February 2002 series of Herald articles that said Murphy had been criticized by prosecutors for lenient sentences, including a punishment of eight years' probation for a 17-year-old convicted of two rapes and an armed robbery.
Murphy, 61, sued the Herald and its writers, claiming his comments about the 14-year-old, 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. Later, he said he hoped the verdict would be a warning to journalists around the country.
Herald lawyer M. Robert Dushman said afterward that the case involved complicated legal issues and that the jury's verdict was flawed.
He said the newspaper was likely to appeal and was unlikely to change the way it pursues public officials.
"I know the Herald's position is they're not going to be chilled. They're going to cover public officials with the same aggressiveness," Dushman said.
The Herald's series was picked up by news 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.
Wedge testified during the trial that he was certain the quote attributed to Murphy was correct. He testified he never spoke with Murphy before the story ran, but said he tried to contact the judge to verify the accuracy of the remark and was turned away.
"David Wedge thoroughly investigated Judge Murphy," Dushman said. "He had reliable sources. Mr. Wedge had absolutely no doubt about the truth."
During the trial, Murphy also denied that he derided a 79-year-old robbery victim in a case unrelated to the one involving the 14-year-old. In that case, in which he said of the robbery victim, "I don't care if she's 109," Murphy said he meant the age of the victim didn't matter, and that his quote was "ripped from context" when published in the Herald.
Citing more than a dozen articles, Murphy accused the newspaper of waging a "malicious and relentless campaign" that destroyed his personal and professional reputation. His lawyer, Howard M. Cooper, accused Wedge of shoddy reporting and fabricating a sensational story to sell papers.
"Mr. Wedge and his editors at the Herald disregarded the truth that was staring them in the face," Cooper said in his closing argument.
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 more difficult standard to meet than the requirement a nonpublic figure must meet to win a libel case.
The case was also unusual because Murphy's lawyers used not only the Herald articles, but also comments that Wedge made on a national television to try to prove his "malicious state of mind."
Wedge, the lead reporter on the story, appeared on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" about three weeks after his first story ran in the Herald, a tabloid with a weekly circulation of over 300,000.
When host Bill O'Reilly asked Wedge if he was sure Murphy had said that 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."