LONDON, JULY 24 -- A High Court jury awarded millionaire novelist and former politician Jeffrey Archer a record $800,000 in libel damages today, and said The Star newspaper falsely reported that he had sex with a prostitute.
After more than four hours of deliberation, the jury unanimously agreed that Archer had been libeled by a story in The Star last fall saying he had sexual intercourse with prostitute Monica Coghlan and tried to pay her $3,200 to avoid a scandal.
The newspaper also must pay legal costs of $1.12 million.
Archer, whose books include "Kane and Abel" and "First Among Equals," resigned his post as deputy chairman of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party after newspaper stories linked him with Coghlan..
He sat back in his seat and closed his eyes when he heard the verdict. His wife Mary, who sat by her husband's side through 14 days of sensational testimony, covered her face and wept quietly.
The Star argued in court that its story was true, although editor Lloyd Turner did not present evidence during the trial.
"We have instructed our lawyers to prepare an appeal," Turner said. "It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage. If there are any further comments or statements they will be published in The Star newspaper."
The trial has been front-page news in Britain's national newspapers since it began in the High Court on July 6. Courtroom seats were as sought as if the trial were a hit play.
The judge, Sir Bernard Caulfield, told the jury in summing up the case that they were hearing "as big a libel action as has ever been tried in this century."
He told the eight-man, four-woman jury that if they found Archer was libeled, the damages they awarded should be "a message to the world that the accusations were false."
Under British law, it is up to the jury to decide on the amount of damages to be awarded in contested libel cases. No figures are suggested by lawyers or the judge.
Caulfield told jurors they should not allow their "imagination to run riot" or award massive damages "just for devilment," but should decide upon a sensible sum reflecting the seriousness of the libel.
"Don't worry whether The Star newspaper has the money. Just make your award," the judge said.
Archer's lawyer, Robert Alexander, had asked for unspecified "enormous damages."
Borrowing a title from one of Archer's novels, he said: "Whatever amount you reach, I suggest Jeffrey Archer is entitled to just that: 'Not a Penny More, Nor a Penny Less.' "
Archer's woes began in October when Coghlan began telephoning him, claiming the press was hounding her because a client tipped off a newspaper about the alleged relationship.
He told the court he never met the woman and gave her money because he felt sorry for her and wanted to help her escape reporters -- not to suppress a sex scandal.
News of the World reported the payment, made through a middleman, in October. Archer resigned hours later.
The following week, The Star published a story alleging he and Coghlan had sexual intercourse Sept. 8 and 9 in a hotel near Victoria Station. Archer also is suing News of the World but acted against The Star first because of its more direct allegation.
"I am innocent!" he shouted on the witness stand. "There is only one thing that matters in this court of law. I have never met this girl. I have never had sexual intercourse with her. And that is the truth."
Coghlan insists they had sexual intercourse, but said most of the other material in The Star's story was inaccurate, based on an interview with a nephew she described as a compulsive liar.
During 16 hours of testimony, the petite, well-dressed woman wept frequently.
"It was him," she said, pointing at Archer. "I had no difficulty seeing his face. I was lying on top of him the whole time."
She yelled at Archer: "Why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this to your wife?"
Mary Archer attended the trial daily and took the witness stand to discuss intimate details of their 21-year marriage. At one point, she denied Coghlan's statement that her husband's skin was rough and blemished last fall.
The judge told the jury to consider the Archers' marriage in its deliberations. "Is Jeffrey Archer in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex?" he asked.
"Remember Mary Archer in the witness box. ... Is she right when she says to you, you may think with delicacy, 'Jeffrey and I lead a full life'?"
Archer was elected to the House of Commons in 1969 at age 29, becoming the youngest member of Parliament in history.
His political ambitions appeared dashed when a business failure left him in severe financial straits, but he built a lucrative career as a novelist, using his political background to write popular fiction.
In the Archer novel "First Among Equals," a prostitute threatens a politician's career.
Archer is claiming additional aggravated damages from the 1.3-million circulation Star because of its trial coverage.
The previous highest libel award in Britain, $738,000, went June 19 to former Royal Navy lieutenant commander Martin Packard. The High Court ruled against a Greek newspaper that alleged Packard was a double agent during Greece's 1967-74 military dictatorship and was responsible for the 1971 killing of a British journalist in Greece.