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Libel Suit Takes Aim at Print Reporter's Words on TV

Bristol County chief prosecutor Paul F. Walsh Jr., in his deposition, called the public uproar a "frenzy" and said: "It went farther than I could comprehend."

As the stories continued, Murphy's daughters had their own crises. In an interview, Jessica said she "really freaked out." She gained weight, and her grades dropped. She couldn't sleep in her bedroom on the first floor, for fear of someone breaking in. "I cried all the time, I had terrible dreams," she said. "I stopped leaving my house."

Emily also started having crying jags and refusing to go out, Jessica said. Her mother said she had nightmares about men suffocating her.

Back in his office, Murphy found piles of hate mail. A Californian who had seen O'Reilly wrote angrily that he had canceled his vacation in Massachusetts. A woman in Derby, England, asked him to overturn the "deplorable sentence." Another woman told him to do the "decent" thing and "step down." Rape counselors excoriated him.

One enterprising correspondent sent him a piece of toilet paper wrapped around a wad of excrement. "You piece of [expletive]," it said. "I'm going to wipe you out."

Murphy developed post-traumatic stress disorder and later collapsed with a large duodenal ulcer near an artery. "The aftermath has quite literally torn my guts out," he said in his lawsuit. He asked the court to assign him to hear only civil cases. The blustery Irishman began breaking down in tears -- sometimes in front of lawyers, Jessica said.

One day, Murphy found an anonymous envelope in his chambers. In it was a copy of his picture from the Herald, with a bull's-eye drawn around his face and the words "You're dead. Get over it, You bastard."

Murphy bought a Magnum.

Searching for Truth

It took three weeks before Murphy fought back in print. When the Herald had asked him to comment, the day after Wedge's "Murphy's Law" story ran, he declined, citing rules on closed judicial discussions. But when a Boston Globe reporter called him in early March 2002, when the case was closed, he talked.

"I deny that I ever said anything critical of, or demeaning about, the victim," he said. "Every single quote that has been attributed to me about that has been fabricated out of thin air. The real truth is 180 degrees. I was extremely concerned about the welfare of the victim, and I made that position apparent to everyone."

Indeed, the prosecutor, David E. Frank, said in a sworn affidavit that during the only conference related to McSweeney's sentencing: "Murphy expressed concern for the victim. He asked counsel about the defendant's ability to pay for counseling for the victim." He added: "I never heard Justice Murphy say 'Tell her to get over it.' "

So where did the quote come from?

According to the deposition of David Crowley, an assistant prosecutor, Murphy mentioned the case in an unrecorded conference relating to a different case the day after the McSweeney sentencing. The judge allegedly said that the victim "is 14; she can't go through life as a victim. She's got to get over it." Crowley reported this to his boss, Gerald Fitzgerald, in the prosecutor's office, and Fitzgerald then asked Crowley to meet with the Herald reporter.

"She's got to get over it'' or "Tell her to get over it" -- two different sentiments. Crowley later said under oath that Wedge's reporting of the quote was not accurate. "The 'Tell her to get over it' comment is a comment that I don't know where it came from," Crowley said. "It didn't come from me."

Wedge said he stands behind what he wrote but acknowledged the quote may not have been exact. "I know he said the judge said either "She's got to get over it" or "Tell her to get over it," he said in an interview. Murphy maintains the conversation never occurred.

Two defense lawyers who were present, Anton B. Cruz and Joseph Harrington Jr., said in sworn statements that they did not see a confrontation or hear Murphy say anything about a 14-year-old rape victim.

Wedge acknowledged in an affidavit that the 14-year-old girl, who he wrote had "tearfully" read her "heart-wrenching" statement in court, in fact never spoke in court nor took the stand. And although his story referred to "several" courthouse sources, he confirmed in a deposition that he had talked with only one person who had allegedly heard Murphy make the comment.

But for a public figure, simple untruths are not enough to win a libel lawsuit; there must be "reckless disregard" for the truth. That is one reason it is almost unheard of for a judge to sue over reporting on his official conduct.

But Murphy's attorneys seized on Wedge's comments on "The O'Reilly Factor" on March 7, 2002. O'Reilly asked Wedge, "Are you absolutely 100 percent sure that Judge Murphy said that the rape victim should get over it?" Wedge answered, "Yes. He made this comment to three lawyers. He knows he said it, and everybody else that knows this judge knows that he said it." Murphy's attorneys contrasted these statements to Wedge's statements under oath, when he repeatedly answered "I don't know" or "I don't recall" to questions about the reporting and writing of his story.

Wedge also "upped the ante" by suggesting that Murphy had made disparaging remarks not only about a victim but "to victims," and by telling Fox viewers that Murphy was "coddling defendants," they claim in their briefs.

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, recalls hearing about the alleged comments about the rape victim when the story first broke. "If the judge didn't say this, you can't put it all back into the bottle -- not with all the coverage on TV and radio" he said. For the victim, the judge, the prosecutors and the reporter, Gillers added, "it will be very hard for any of them to get over it."


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