By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Murphy’s woes mount

Alex Jones’ expertise is in media ethics, not judicial conduct. Still, since I know Jones to be both thoughtful and cautious, I was struck by the vehemence of his reaction to the letters that Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy sent to Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell last February and March. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, tells the Herald’s Greg Gatlin:

I think an apology is pretty meaningless. The fact that he did it, whether he did it on his stationery or on plain white paper, seems secondary to the fact that he did it at all.

I think there is every reason to believe that Judge Murphy is a man of uncommon bad judgment as demonstrated by the fact that he wrote these letters….

It seems so blatantly inappropriate that I would be surprised if there is not some action from the judiciary. This is a man who embodies the law. It’s incredible that this would happen without any repercussions.

Uncommon bad judgment. Blatantly inappropriate. Interesting — that’s essentially what the Herald reported about Murphy’s bail and sentencing practices in the winter of 2002. That put the Herald on the losing end of a $2.1 million libel judgment earlier this year. Yet now Murphy, through his own words, is lending credence to the notion that the Herald’s reporting — flawed and sensationalistic though it was — also happened to be substantially true. And under the law, not even a private citizen — never mind a public official such as Murphy — is supposed prevail in a libel case unless he can show he was harmed by reporting that was clearly false.

Murphy tried to place a letter in today’s Boston Globe apologizing for using his official court stationery to write handwritten letters to Purcell aimed at settling the libel case. The Globe wouldn’t bite — editorial-page editor Renée Loth tells Gatlin that she wouldn’t publish an “I hereby apologize kind of thing.” But the Globe did cover it as a news story.

There’s no longer any doubt as to whether the letters are authentic, is there? Still, I find it frustrating that no one has yet figured out why Murphy wanted Purcell to fork over $3.26 million when a reported estimate at the time of the verdict was that the judgment would cost the Herald about $2.7 million, interest included.

Elsewhere in the Herald, legal reporter Maggie Mulvihill quotes retired judge Robert Barton as saying that Murphy will likely be punished for violating the judicial code of ethics. And columnist Margery Eagan, at one point a defendant in Murphy’s libel suit, indulges (sub. req.) in some well-earned schadenfreude, beginning today with this:

Clearly, Judge Ernest Murphy has a message for Boston Herald owner Pat Purcell:

“Get over it.”

There is a school of thought that Murphy won his libel suit fair and square, and that his letters to Purcell were nothing but a typical attempt by two parties in a legal dispute to work out their differences and end their court battle. Certainly Murphy’s lawyer, Howard Cooper, is promoting that notion. And I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. Cases such as this can get pretty ugly, and I understand that Murphy shouldn’t necessarily be judged, so to speak, by what he wrote as part of a settlement process. Purcell couldn’t have been all that offended, or he wouldn’t have waited until now to release the letters.

But the bullying tone Murphy adopted, the sneering superiority, go a long way toward puncturing his image as someone who was grievously wronged by the media. Indeed, he comes off as someone more than capable of fighting back. As a judge — a public servant — he abused the First Amendment by suing the Herald rather than taking on the newspaper in public, as he easily could have done.

As for his letters to Purcell, an old sports analogy seems to hold here: When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.

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  1. Anonymous

    Great post. Two interesting things: 1.) I like the unintended consequence angle–the Herald couldn’t prove that allegations of bad judgement were true in the libel case, but Murphy certainly seems to have plugged that hole with these letters. 2.) Dan, don’t get frustrated over why he asked for more than he was awarded. What’s that occam’s razor thing? The easiest explanation is usually the right one: EXTORTION!

  2. Anonymous

    Dan — interesting to read your adjectives re Murphy: “bullying tone” and “sneering superiority.” You have empathy for the press on this, it seems. Funny how the last judge to have a very public flameout — complete with bullying tones, sneering superiority and demeaning comments about a victim (“a low-level crime” was her description of the kidnap and attempted rape of an 11-year-old boy) — received nothing but sympathy from you. And you scorched the press for its coverage on that one.I’m talking, of course, about Maria Lopez, who just happened to be the wife of Boston Phoenix owner Stephen Mindich, your employer at the time. So much for objectivity, right Dan?

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Anonymous 12:31: And I have scorched the Herald for its coverage of Murphy — “irresponsible” and “sensationalistic” are the words I believe I used this morning. I did and do believe Maria Lopez was grotesquely mistreated by the press, and yes, she is married to my friend and former employer, Stephen Mindich. (By the way, I thought the sentence she gave to Ebony Horton was too light, and I wrote so — in the Phoenix — at the time. Look it up.) Lopez had at least as much reason to file a libel suit as Judge Murphy did. Yet she did not. Tell me where I’m being inconsistent.

  4. Rick in Duxbury

    DK, I think your take on this is right on. Two thoughts:1. Murphy may have conclusively proven the existence of karma and2. What’s up with the attempt to apologize in the Globe? Does that mean when I have an argument with my wife, I can later apologize to YOU?

  5. Anonymous

    Wonder what the “over and under” is on how long before Judge Murphy hires George Regan? I see his holiday party included both The Kraft Family and a convicted felon, Bill Lilly, “The Condo King”. If George can get Myra to stand for that, rehabilitating Ernie Murphy should be a piece of cake.

  6. Anonymous

    Dan, you’re missing a key point as to why Purcell held onto the letters. Not because he wasn’t offended. But because Murphy followed through on his threats this fall when he filed a bogus court action trying to freeze the Herald’s assets. That was done despite clear evidence that the Herald was fully indemnified to pay the judgment if the appeals failed. And it was done at a time when the Herald was seeking investors and then planted in the Globe to hurt the Herald’s sale prospects. So we have the threat and the follow-through. It is what it is.

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