A jury deliberated for five days before finding that the newspaper, a tabloid with a weekly circulation of over 300,000, and its reporter David Wedge had libeled Superior Court Judge Ernest 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 appeared 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 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.
Wedge, the lead reporter of the series, 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, the Associated Press reported.
“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.” Dushman acknowledged “minor errors” in some of Wedge’s reporting, but said he did a solid job overall.
When media outlets across the country picked up on the Herald’s series, Murphy became known as “Easy Ernie” and “Evil Ernie.”
The 61-year-old judge 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.
“I’m feeling obviously very elated and very gratified about what’s happened so far,” Murphy said as he left court after the verdict. Murphy later said he hoped the verdict would be a warning to journalists around the country, the AP reported.
During the trial, Murphy cited more than a dozen articles, accusing the paper of waging a “malicious and relentless campaign” that destroyed his personal and professional reputation. His lawyer, Howard 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, the AP reported.
Because Murphy is a public figure, Cooper had to convince the jury that the Herald knew it was reporting false information, or acted with a reckless disregard for the truth — a higher standard than the requirement a nonpublic figure must meet to win a libel case.
The case also received attention for its uniqueness because Murphy’s lawyers not only used the Herald articles as evidence, but also Wedge’s comments on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” to try to prove his “malicious state of mind.”
Wedge was not in the courtroom for the verdict. The newspaper’s publisher, Patrick J. Purcell, later issued a statement thanking the jury for their “diligence” in the case, but said the paper would continue to fight the case in court.
“We have complete faith in our reporter David Wedge, and we are confident this decision will be reversed on appeal,” Purcell said. “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.”
Tom Mashberg, a Herald reporter and the paper’s union representative, also defended the newspaper’s performance and said its reporters stood with Wedge.
“David Wedge is an excellent reporter who worked tirelessly to expose the sentencing practices of a powerful sitting judge,” he told the AP.