Monday, May 07, 2007

SJC Affirms Libel Verdict Against Boston Herald

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the $2.09 million libel verdict against the Boston Herald and reporter David Wedge in a case brought by Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy. In a decision written by Justice John Greaney, the court said: "We conclude that the verdict, as modified by the trial judge, holding the defendants liable for the calumnies published, is sound in fact and in law, and we now affirm the judgment entered on the jury's verdict."
At issue were a series of articles attacking Murphy as soft on crime. The first article ran under the headline "Murphy's law," with the subhead "Lenient judge frees dangerous criminals." It included the allegation that Murphy had said of a teenage rape victim, "She can't go through life as a victim. She's 14. She got raped. Tell her to get over it."

The SJC found "that there is overwhelming evidence in the record from which to conclude, as the jury did, that the statements were defamatory and false." The court came down particularly hard on Wedge, finding that his testimony at trial was not believable and was impeached by contradictions in his earlier deposition testimony. "It is fair to say that, by the end of Wedge's testimony, his credibility on any material factual point at issue was in tatters," Greaney wrote.

As for the statement about the rape victim, Greaney found that overwhelming evidence indicated that Murphy's actual statements showed compassion and concern, not callousness. "The actual remarks made by the plaintiff in the lobby conference in the rape case … are polar opposites to what Wedge reported and demonstrate that the plaintiff had acted with compassion and prudent regard to assist the victim in restoring her life."

Greaney found that Wedge "deliberately attempted to mislead the jury" and acted with "actual malice" in his reporting of the stories. "There is an abundance of evidence that, taken cumulatively, provides clear and convincing proof that the defendants either knew that the published statements found by the jury to be libelous were untrue, or that they published them in reckless disregard of their probable falsity."

"Despite obvious reasons to doubt the quotation's accuracy, however, and although Wedge knew that there were others -- not connected to the district attorney's office -- who had been present at the robbery case lobby conference at which the statements purportedly were made, Wedge failed to interview anyone other than Crowley," Greaney wrote.

"When substantial doubts have been raised as to the veracity of a reporter's information, the purposeful failure to investigate known witnesses may be proof of actual malice. … The evidence, clearly and convincingly, supports the inference that Wedge included the 'tell her' quotation, which not one percipient witness had confirmed, to convey the impression (false) of callousness. The evidence equally clearly and convincingly supports the determination that Wedge purposely did not seek to interview any of the percipient witnesses who would have contradicted the alleged facts in his article."

Greaney said that "most damaging" to Wedge were the circumstances in which he discarded his notes. Even though Wedge testified that he routinely discarded his notes within days, Greaney found it "highly improbable" that would discard them here, having already been put on notice by a lawyer that Murphy claimed he was misquoted.

"The jury were entitled to draw the negative inference that Wedge discarded his notebook in a deliberate effort to conceal what he knew were inaccuracies in his reporting. This inference, in turn, provides a strong basis for a finding of actual malice."

Greaney concludes: "The record contains sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendants published the quotation, and other defamatory statements concerning the plaintiff, with knowledge of their falsity or with serious doubts as to their truth."


Anonymous said...

this is bad for reporters..don't you think?

this ruling was on the difference of two statements:

"tell her to get over it"

and "she's got to get over it"

i still think the second statement is just as insensitive as the first, not in anyway "compassionate." Where does he get off telling a rape victim to "get over it"?

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