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February 22, 2005

Boston Herald tagged with big defamation jury verdict

In a case that is being followed closely by free speech advocates and lawyers who specialize in defamation cases, Massachusetts Superior Court Ernest B. Murphy hammered The Boston Herald and one of its reporters with a $2.1 million jury verdict for libeling him in a series of articles that portrayed him as being overly lenient toward criminal defendants.

The Herald reported in February 2002 that prosecutors were criticizing Judge Murphy privately for giving overly lenient sentences to criminal defendants, and used as an example a sentence of eight years' probation for a 17-year-old convicted of two rapes and an armed robbery. In a particularly inflammatory part of one article, the newspaper quoted Judge Murphy as telling prosecutors involved in the case to tell the teenage rape victim: "Tell her to get over it." The story was picked up by media outlets across the country and Judge Murphy became a target of right wing talk radio shows that tabbed him as "Easy Ernie" and "Evil Ernie." The Herald's lead reporter on the story then appeared on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" after his first story ran and confirmed that Judge Murphy had made the comment to three lawyers involved in the case.

In his suit against the newspaper, Judge Murphy's essentially accused the Herald of fabricating a sensational story to sell papers. Based on about a dozen articles, Judge Murphy asserted that the Herald had misquoted him in connection with the above particular quote, and that it took other of his remarks out of context. The lawsuit also alleged that the judge was bombarded with hate mail, death threats and calls for his removal from the bench as a result of the Herald's articles on the judge. The newspaper stood by its reporting of the particular quote and the series of articles in general.

The case is particularly noteworthy because Judge Murphy is a public figure, which means that Judge Murphy had to persuade the jury that either the Herald knew it was reporting false information or that it acted with a reckless disregard for the truth. That is a considerably higher standard than what a normal citizen must fulfill to win a defamation lawsuit.

Posted by Tom at February 22, 2005 7:59 AM |

Comments

I'll bet it gets reversed.

Posted by: banjo jones at February 23, 2005 11:37 AM

Banjo, that is a good bet in defamation cases involving public figures. But a big part of the appellate review will focus on the strength of the evidence that the Herald intentionally reported false information. If the judge's lawyers have evidence in the record that the Herald reported information about the judge that it knew was false, then those jury findings have a decent shot at being upheld.

Posted by: Tom Kirkendall at February 23, 2005 8:08 PM

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