Judge won't reconvene jury after disputed verdict in New Hampshire youth center abuse case

Superior Court Justice Andrew Schulman conducts a bench hearing with lawyers during the trial for David Meehan at Rockingham Superior Court in Brentwood, N.H., Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (David Lane/Union Leader via AP, Pool)

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The judge who oversaw a landmark trial over abuse at New Hampshire’s youth detention center won’t reconvene the jury but says he will consider other options to address the disputed $38 million verdict.

David Meehan, who alleged he was repeatedly raped, beaten and held in solitary confinement at the Youth Development Center in the 1990s, was awarded $18 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in enhanced damages on May 3. But the attorney general’s office is seeking to reduce the award under a state law that allows claimants against the state to recover a maximum of $475,000 per “incident.”

Meehan’s lawyers asked Judge Andrew Schulman on Tuesday to reconvene and poll the jury, arguing that multiple emails they received from distraught jurors showed that they misunderstood a question on the verdict form about the number of incidents for which the state was liable. But Schulman said Wednesday that recalling the jury would be inappropriate given that jurors have been exposed to “intense publicity and criticism of their verdict.”

“We are not going to get a new verdict from the same jury,” he wrote in a brief order. “Regardless of what the jurors now think of their verdict, their testimony is not admissible to change it.”

Jurors were unaware of the state law that caps damages at $475,000 per incident. When asked on the verdict form how many incidents they found Meehan had proven, they wrote “one,” but one juror has since told Meehan’s lawyers that they meant “‘one’ incident/case of complex PTSD, as the result of 100+ episodes of abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional) that he sustained at the hands of the State’s neglect and abuse of their own power.”

Schulman, who plans to elaborate in a longer order, acknowledged that “the finding of ‘one incident’ was contrary to the weight of the evidence,” and said he would entertain motions to set aside the verdict or order a new trial. But he said a better option might be a practice described in a 1985 New Hampshire Supreme Court order. In that case, the court found that a trial judge could add damages to the original amount awarded by the jury if a defendant waives a new trial.

Meehan, 42, went to police in 2017 and sued the state three years later. Since then, 11 former state workers have been arrested and more than 1,100 other former residents of what is now called the Sununu Youth Services Center have filed lawsuits alleging physical, sexual and emotional abuse spanning six decades. Charges against one former worker, Frank Davis, were dropped Tuesday after the 82-year-old was found incompetent to stand trial.

Meehan’s lawsuit was the first to go to trial. Over four weeks, his attorneys contended that the state encouraged a culture of abuse marked by pervasive brutality, corruption and a code of silence.

The state portrayed Meehan as a violent child, troublemaking teenager and delusional adult lying to get money. Defense attorneys also said the state was not liable for the conduct of rogue employees and that Meehan waited too long to sue.