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Boston Herald loses defamation suit; Boston woman wins $563,052 award

A Suffolk Superior Court jury awarded a Boston woman $563,052 in damages after concluding that she was defamed by a Boston Herald story that falsely said she had been “written up” by prison officials for having sex with a convicted murderer.

Joanna Marinova sued the newspaper and reporter Jessica Van Sack for the story, which the Herald published on May 28, 2009.

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After deliberating for about 15 hours, jurors concluded that three parts of the story were false and that two of them defamed Marinova, according to her attorney and the verdict slip.

Marinova’s Boston attorney, David H. Rich, said the verdict exonerated his client, who works for nonprofits and is an activist for better conditions for state prison inmates.

“We think that the verdict declares in a very loud and public manner that this never happened,’’ Rich said.

The Herald predicted it would “ultimately prevail” in the matter.

According to Rich and court records, the Herald story focused on a visit Marinova made to the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater on May 7, 2009, in the company of state Representative Gloria L. Fox, a Roxbury Democrat.

In the story, the Herald reported that Fox and Marinova bypassed standard security because of Fox’s role as a lawmaker and that corrections officials said that Fox identified Marinova as one of her aides.

Marinova was not an aide to Fox, but was romantically involved with the prisoner Fox went to meet, a former Brockton man, Darrell Jones, who was convicted of murder. Jones at the time was an activist on prisoner rights issues, and Marinova assisted him.

But, according to Rich, the jury heard evidence that Marinova had been cleared two days earlier by DOC to visit Jones, without intercession from Fox. He said the jury also learned that Marinova never faced discipline from DOC, contrary to the Herald story that said Marinova had been “written up” and “bagged’’ for “engaging in ‘sexual acts’ with the killer con.”

Rich said Jones had been issued a disciplinary report by the Correction Department because he kissed Marinova and touched her knee during a visit in 2008.

Marinova, Rich said, never engaged in “sexual acts” with Jones.

The lawyer also said the department later dropped discipline against Jones because the actions did not qualify as “sexual acts’’ under corrections rules.

Rich said Jones and Marinova later married, but have since divorced.

In court papers, lawyers for Van Sack and the Herald contended that the story was accurate based on the information provided to the reporter. And in a statement posted on its website Wednesday afternoon, the Herald said it stood by the story and Van Sack.

“The Herald has stated since its May 28, 2009, article on a major security breach at Old Colony Prison was published that its article was entirely correct, from its headline to its last line,” the newspaper said on its website. “The article was meticulously researched, carefully written and extremely well documented. We are proud of it and the journalist who wrote it.”

Herald spokeswoman Gwen Gage said the newspaper would not comment beyond what it said in its posting, which also stated that the Herald would continue to defend the story and Van Sack.

“Lawsuits like the one filed here are serious threats not only to the rights of a free and robust press, but to the rights of the citizenry that expects, and depends upon, that free and robust press,” the newspaper said. “The Herald fully expects to ultimately prevail in this matter.”

A judge last year threw out a defamation suit filed by Tom Scholz, the leader of the band Boston, for a story on the 2007 suicide of singer Brad Delp that the Herald published in its Inside Track section.

The case is now before the full state Supreme Judicial Court, according to court records.

Rich was one of the attorneys who successfully sued the Herald for libel on behalf of now-retired Superior Court judge Ernest B. Murphy, who won a $2 million verdict, which was later affirmed by the SJC.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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