BOSTON – A jury Friday ordered the Boston Herald (search) to pay $2.1 million for libeling a Superior Court judge, saying it misquoted him as telling lawyers that a 14-year-old rape victim should "get over it."
In a case closely watched by the media and legal communities, a jury deliberated for more than 20 hours over five days before finding that the newspaper and reporter David Wedge (search) libeled Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy (search) in articles that portrayed him as lenient toward defendants. Another reporter, Jules Crittenden, was cleared.
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 eight years' probation for a 17-year-old convicted of two rapes and an armed robbery.
Murphy, 61, was bombarded with hate mail, death threats and calls for his removal from the bench. He 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.
"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. Outside the courtroom, he hugged his lawyers and raised their fists triumphantly as friends and family applauded.
Later, Murphy said he hoped the verdict would be a warning to journalists around the country that innocent people get hurt if they don't do their jobs properly.
The newspaper continued to stand by its reporting, saying it will appeal and that it will not change how it covers the news.
"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," said Patrick J. Purcell (search), the newspaper's president and publisher.
The jury awarded damages on 22 of 61 statements Murphy claimed were libelous, including $1.375 million for 11 separate occasions in which the "Tell her to get over it" quote was reported in some form in the paper, or repeated on a TV appearance by Wedge.
"Monetary compensation may not ever get back his reputation, but we tried to be as fair as we could," said juror Colleen E. Barber, 22.
Wedge, the lead reporter on the story, has stood by the quote, including during an appearance on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" about three weeks after his first story ran.
When host Bill O'Reilly asked Wedge if he was sure Murphy 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."
Wedge, however, later said in a deposition that only one of the lawyers heard the comment firsthand and the other two 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 couldn't remember the judge's exact quote.
Murphy's lawyer, Howard M. Cooper, argued his client said, "She's got to get over it," which indicated sympathy. Cooper said Murphy had expressed concern for the rape victim and asked court personnel and the defendant's lawyer about making counseling available to her.
The Herald's articles were picked up by media outlets across the country. Murphy was excoriated on talk radio shows, and the outrage shook Murphy's family.
In an Internet chat room, someone suggested that Murphy's own teenage daughters should be raped. Two of his daughters were so frightened they went to live with family members and friends.
Murphy testified that he bought a .357-caliber Magnum because "I was afraid that someone was going to shoot me."
Citing more than a dozen articles, Murphy accused the newspaper of waging a "malicious and relentless campaign" that destroyed his personal and professional reputation. Murphy also had sued a Herald columnist and another reporter, but they were cleared before the case went to the jury.
Wedge testified he was certain the quote attributed to Murphy was correct. He said he never spoke with Murphy before the story ran, but that he tried to contact the judge to verify the accuracy of the remark and was turned away.
"David Wedge thoroughly investigated Judge Murphy," Herald lawyer M. Robert Dushman said during the trial. "He had reliable sources. Mr. Wedge had absolutely no doubt about the truth."