(AP) 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 media and legal communities, a jury deliberated for more than 20 hours over five days before finding that the newspaper and reporter David Wedge had libeled Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy. Another reporter 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, 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.
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.
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,” Herald lawyer M. Robert Dushman said. “He had reliable sources. Mr. Wedge had absolutely no doubt about the truth.”