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Philadelphia Inquirer settles libel suit

PHILADELPHIA, April 1 -- The Philadelphia Inquirer Monday settled a libel suit filed 23 years ago by criminal attorney Richard Sprague over a series of articles that questioned his ethics. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but in 1990 a jury awarded Sprague $34 million in damages. The state Superior Court later lowered the award to $24 million. The 1973 series detailed alleged improprieties by Sprague when he was a homicide prosecutor with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office in 1963. The articles suggested that Sprague had quashed a 1963 murder investigation as a favor for a friend, former State Police Commissioner Rocco Urella. The series was based on reporting by the late Inquirer writer Greg Walter. Sprague contended that Walter had a grudge against him because he had successfully prosecuted the writer for illegally tape recording telephone interviews. Superior Court Judge William Cercone said the articles showed 'a reckless disregard of the truth' and were written with 'malicious intent.' 'From the beginning I felt very strongly about my case, and I feel no differently today, but it's time for all of us to get on with our lives,' Sprague said. Inquirer publisher Robert Hall said he was pleased to have settled the suit despite the fact that he felt the U.S. Supreme Court would have reversed the jury award. 'But we also are aware that the court takes very few cases,' Hall said. 'Closing the book now on more proceedings seems like a sensible thing to do.

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It's been a long time since the 1970s, and it's time to move on.' A Common Pleas Court jury found in Sprague's favor in 1983, but the Pennsylvania appellate courts granted the Inquirer a new trial. At the second trial in 1990, a jury awarded Sprague $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $31.5 million in punitive damages. In 1994, Cercone, denied the Inquirer's request for a new trial but reduced the amount of punitive damages by $10 million, ruling that the jury's award was excessive. In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the Inquirer's appeal. Knight-Ridder, the Inquirer's parent company, announced that the settlement would have no impact on its earnings.

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