New Hampshire AG’s office to play both offense and defense in youth center abuse trials

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Lawyers defending New Hampshire’s state-run youth detention center against allegations of horrific abuse will be allowed to undermine an accuser’s credibility when the first of more than 1,000 lawsuits goes to trial next month, even as a separate team of state lawyers relies on his account to prosecute former workers.

The scandal at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester came to light after two former workers were arrested in 2019 and charged with abusing David Meehan, a former resident who had gone to police two years earlier. In the four years since Meehan sued the state, nine more workers have been charged and hundreds of other former residents have filed their own lawsuits alleging physical and sexual abuse.

With both Meehan’s civil case and the first criminal case scheduled for trial in April, a judge’s recent ruling highlights the unusual dynamic of having the state attorney general’s office simultaneously prosecuting perpetrators and defending the state.

Meehan’s attorneys asked Judge Andrew Schulman in January to prohibit the state from undermining Meehan’s credibility and trustworthiness through cross-examination based on a legal doctrine that prevents a party from taking a position in one legal proceeding that contradicts a position it took in another.

“The State cannot be allowed to take a Janus-faced position — wholeheartedly proffering David’s allegations of abuse on the State’s criminal proceedings, while disavowing or discrediting those same allegations in David’s civil action,” they wrote.

Attorneys for the state argued that the request, if granted, would effectively prohibit the state from putting on any defense whatsoever. The doctrine doesn't apply because the defendants in the civil case and prosecutors in the criminal cases are not the same party, they said.

“Plaintiff’s request for what would essentially be a sham trial is what threatens judicial integrity and public confidence in the courts,” they wrote last month. “State defendants’ ability to cross-examine plaintiff, who chose to bring this suit against state defendants, or offer other evidence, does not.”

Schulman denied the motion Friday, issuing a three-sentence order saying that applying the doctrine in question was inappropriate while warning state lawyers about contradicting the criminal indictments.

A spokesperson for Attorney General John Formella did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. In the past, officials have defended the decision to oversee concurrent civil and criminal investigations by citing strong “ethical walls” to keep them completely separate.

But Jamie White, a Michigan-based attorney who has been involved in multiple institutional sexual abuse cases, said he disagrees with the ruling and has never seen a similar scenario in which an attorney general’s office is both defending the state and prosecuting abusers. Though he praised Formella for investigating the abuse and bringing charges, he called it “mind-boggling” that Formella didn’t outsource the defense on the civil side to a private firm.

“They can explain it away all they want, but the firewall might as well be made of cardboard,” said White, who has represented gymnasts abused by Dr. Larry Nassar and victims of the late Dr. Robert Anderson at the University of Michigan. “This idea that they can play both sides of the fence is not realistic. It’s not healthy, and it’s not good for the survivors.”

In their lawsuits, former residents allege widespread abuse at the detention center between 1960 and 2019. Some say they were gang raped, beaten while being raped and forced to sexually abuse each other. Staff members also are accused of choking children, beating them unconscious, burning them with cigarettes and breaking their bones.

Many are expected to seek compensation through a $150 million settlement fund created by the Legislature. For those who continue in court, White said the latest ruling could have a chilling effect on other victims who trusted investigators on the criminal side and will now fear being scrutinized in an attempt limit the state’s liability on the civil side.

The youth center, which once housed upward of 100 children but now typically serves fewer than a dozen, is named for former Gov. John H. Sununu, father of current Gov. Chris Sununu. Lawmakers have approved closing the facility, which now only houses those accused or convicted of the most serious violent crimes, and replacing it with a much smaller building in a new location.