Court Upholds $2 Million Libel Judgment Against Boston Herald

Massachusetts’ highest court has upheld a $2 million verdict against the Boston Herald won by a Superior Court judge who said the newspaper libelously depicted him as soft on crime and insensitive to the suffering of a 14-year-old rape victim.

Judge Ernest Murphy argued that a Herald reporter misquoted him as telling lawyers involved in the case: “Tell her to get over it.” Murphy denied ever making the statement, and a jury in 2005 found that the newspaper had libeled Murphy him in a series of articles.

Attorneys for the Herald and its reporter, David Wedge, appealed the award. They said Wedge did everything he could to ensure the stories were accurate, including twice trying to get comment from the judge himself.

The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the jury’s verdict, which found the Herald had defamed Murphy and published false information about him.

The court said the press has the right and even a duty to examine the judicial branch of government and to criticize judges and other court officials.

“The press, however, is not free to publish false information about anyone (even a judge whose sentencing decisions have incurred the wrath of the local district attorney), intending that it will cause a public furor, while knowing, or in reckless disregard of, its falsity,” the court said in its written ruling.

Patrick Purcell, president and publisher of the newspaper, said he supports Wedge and called the court’s view of his reporting “relentlessly one-sided.”

“In one of his threatening letters to me, Judge Murphy correctly predicted the Herald had ‘zero chance’ that his colleagues on the bench would side with the newspaper rather than one of their own,” Purcell in a statement posted on the paper’s web site.

In a separate statement on the Web site, Wedge said his reporting was accurate.

“Any insinuation by anyone, including the SJC, that anything in any of the stories on Judge Murphy was fabricated is completely reckless, irresponsible and untrue and is not borne out by the facts of the case,” he said.

Murphy refused to answer questions, saying there was a possibility the decision could be appealed. At a news conference with his lawyers, the judge said he had been “very compassionate and concerned” about the rape victim, but she and her family had believed he had made the remarks attributed to him.

“I’m obviously extremely gratified that the Supreme Judicial Court has vindicated my pursuit of justice in this matter,” Murphy said.

The Herald published the first of the articles on Murphy on Feb. 13, 2002, using the headlines “Murphy’s Law” and “Lenient judge frees dangerous criminals.” The article, quoting unnamed courthouse sources, said Murphy said of the teenage rape victim: “She can’t go through life as a victim. She’s (14). She got raped. Tell her to get over it.”

During the trial, Wedge testified he was told about the comment by a former district attorney and an assistant district attorney. Wedge said he was aware that neither of them heard the comment directly, but he said he confirmed it with another assistant district attorney who was there.

The SJC, however, said Wedge’s trial testimony contradicted statements he made during a deposition in 2002, when he said he did not meet with the second assistant district attorney and thus did not confirm the accuracy of Murphy’s alleged statement with any firsthand witness until after the article was published. Wedge also said during his deposition that his sources for Murphy’s statement used slightly different words than he reported.

The court said the evidence in the case supported the jury’s finding of actual malice, meaning Wedge and the Herald either knew the published statements were untrue or published them in “reckless disregard of their probable falsity.” The jury had awarded Murphy $2.09 million in compensatory damages, which was later reduced to $2.01 million.