The Judge and the Tabloid

No doubt about it. We are now in Round II of the Ernest Murphy/Boston Herald libel suit. Only this one is being waged not in Suffolk Superior Court, but in the court of public opinion.

Round I was won by Murphy in February when a Suffolk County jury awarded the judge almost $2.1 million (not including interest) after concluding he had been libeled in 22 statements contained in a series of Herald stories or uttered on the Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor."

It was a bitter trial that ended after 25 hours of jury deliberation with Murphy embracing his lawyers -- Howard Cooper and David Rich -- in the hallway outside the courtroom. Observers debated whether the plaintiff had proved that the Herald acted with actual malice. But the bottom line is that Murphy had come across as an aggrieved party, Cooper had made a surprisingly strong case, and the jury was convinced.

After that, things pretty much stayed on the back burner until yesterday when the Herald (and the Globe) broke the news that Murphy had sent intemperate letters to the Herald leaning on publisher Pat Purcell to pay him over $3 millon. This clearly triggered the start of a very public Herald campaign against the jury decision aimed at raising questions about Murphy's judgment and temperament.

Today,the paper is back in full swing. There is a story reporting on Murphy's apology for using court stationery to write his ill-conceived letters. (An apology is the least he could do.) It also seems obvious from today's story that the Herald is making every good faith effort to reach Murphy's lawyer, Howard Cooper.

Then there is this sidebar, the classic "wheels in motion" story raising the possibility of disciplinary action being taken against the judge.

And there is a Margery Eagan column taking a whack at Murphy and declaring that if she'd received a letter like the one the judge sent to Purcell, "I'd say a Hail Mary and check the brakes." All in all, it made for a nice page 4 package for the tabloid trying to make the case that the the libel verdict was a miscarriage of justice and that Murphy is a misfit in a judge's robe.

Frankly, no one is wearing the angel's wings on this one. I spent 19 days covering the Murphy trial when I was at the Globe. I became convinced that there were serious and disturbing problems with the Herald's coverage of Murphy and was not the least surprised that the jury was inclined to give him something -- particularly when they were asked to evaluate 61 separate statements that were potentially libelous. I also think that Murphy's strange behavior in leaning on the Herald, however disturbing, doesn't negate or somehow disqualify the original libel verdict.

On the other hand, Murphy's strong-arming of the paper is a blunder of serious proportions and one, I would guess, that won't do him any good in legal and judicial circles. And if nothing else, it's given the Herald a real pr opening in its ongoing battle with the judge.

By the way -- late this afternoon, Murphy's lawyers are holding their own press conference to fight back against the Herald's now vigorious campaign. This is getting good.
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