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A Boston tabloid that took on a state court judge’s sentencing practices in a series of stories four years ago is challenging the $2 million verdict it lost to him in February 2005 in a libel case arising from that reporting. The Boston Herald, which assailed Superior Court Associate Justice Ernest B. Murphy in a series of articles in 2002, claims that two letters Murphy wrote to Herald publisher Patrick J. Purcell within the month following the jury verdict but made public only last month-one under the court’s letterhead-plainly reveal Murphy’s campaign to bully the newspaper out of its constitutional right to appeal. In letters addressed to Purcell as continuing private settlement discussions or negotiations between principals, Murphy demanded payment of $3.26 million and told Purcell that the Herald had little chance of winning on appeal. Bruce W. Sanford, a nationally recognized libel and First Amendment partner at Baker & Hostetler’s Washington office who has taken the Herald‘s case on appeal, said he had “never seen anything like it in 30 years of practice.” “The letters really have to be read themselves to be fully appreciated,” said Sanford, who argues that they should become part of the appellate record because they say in the judge’s own words what the newspaper has said about the case all along. “The letters show the thinking on the part of the judge. They show his strong attitudes, that he is a little loose lipped, and an exercise of poor judgment-the same as in the libel case,” he said. But Howard M. Cooper of Boston’s Todd & Weld, who represents Murphy, said that the Herald‘s recent unveiling of the letters is a “publicity stunt that needs to be exposed for the publicity stunt it is.” Murphy plans to file “a very detailed response” on Jan. 9 opposing the Herald‘s motion to vacate the judgment and make the letters part of the record, Cooper said. Gillian E. Pearson, executive director of the Boston-based Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, declined to comment on the matter. A close look coming The case arose from stories the Herald ran about Murphy’s purported light touch at sentencing, beginning with “Murphy’s law: Judge lets dangerous criminals go free” in February 2002. Murphy was characterized as a “wrist-slapping New Bedford Superior Court judge under fire for letting four accused rapists return to the streets in the past week, has a pro-defendant stance and has heartlessly demeaned victims, according to records and sources.” But he successfully challenged the Herald‘s use of “records and sources” in a libel action in which he won $2.09 million in 2005. John B. Williams, a litigation partner at Jones Day’s Washington office whose cases include the successful defense of Watergate conspirator and talk radio impresario G. Gordon Liddy in Watergate-related defamation actions, said appellate courts normally take a very close look at libel verdicts. “This guy obviously felt he was mistreated and libeled, and the jury obviously felt he was mistreated and libeled,” Williams said, noting that “the great talent comes in after an adverse verdict. That’s when you get the real stars, the Bruce Sanfords, who set to picking apart the record.” Kerrie L. Hook of Washington’s Collier Shannon Scott, who worked with Williams in the Liddy cases, emphasized the importance of holding the media accountable for its “awesome power to destroy lives.” Hook said that while many easily recall a sensational story, “a far fewer number will ever realize that a jury said the press got it terribly wrong and irreparably devastated a man and his family.”

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