Jurors hear closing arguments in a landmark case involving abuse allegations at the New Hampshire juvenile center

BRENTWOOD, N.H. (AP) — Jurors heard closing arguments Thursday in a landmark case seeking to hold the state of New Hampshire accountable for abuse at its juvenile detention center.

The plaintiff, David Meehan, went to police in 2017 and sued the state three years later, alleging he was brutally beaten, raped and held in solitary confinement at a youth development center in the 1990s. Since then, 11 former state employees have been arrested and more than 1,100 other former residents have filed lawsuits alleging physical, sexual and emotional abuse spanning six decades.

Meehan's attorney, David Vicinanzo, told jurors that more than $200 million in compensation would be appropriate – $1 million for each alleged sexual assault. He argued that the state's apparent negligence fostered a culture of abuse characterized by pervasive brutality, corruption and a code of silence.

“They still don’t understand,” Vicinanzo said. “They don’t understand what power they had, they don’t understand how they abused their power, and they don’t care.

But the state's attorney said Meehan's case was based on “conjecture and speculation with a lot of innuendo” and that no liability should be assigned to the state.

“There was no widespread culture of abuse,” said lawyer Martha Gaythwaite. “This was not the pit of sin that was portrayed.”

Gaythwaite said there was no evidence that the facility's director or anyone in senior government positions knew about the alleged abuse.

“Conspiracy theories are no substitute for actual evidence,” she said.

Meehan, whose lawsuit was the first to be filed and brought to trial, spent three days on the witness stand describing his three years in the Manchester facility and its aftermath. He told jurors that his first sexual experience was being violently raped by a co-worker when he was 15, and that another co-worker, whom he initially viewed as a caring father figure, became a daily tormentor, once holding a gun to him during a sexual assault held to his head.

“I have to try to somehow hold myself together and show as a man what these people did to this little boy,” he said. “I keep paying for what they did.”

Meehan's lawyers called more than a dozen witnesses, including former employees who said they encountered resistance and even threats when raising concerns or investigating a former resident who described being gang-raped in a stairwell, and a teacher who said she spotted suspicious bruises on Meehan and a half-dozen other boys.

“The rot started at the top,” Vicinanzo said Thursday. “The fish rots from the head. The sound starts there.”

The state called five witnesses, including Meehan's father, who answered “yes” when asked if his son had a “reputation for untruthfulness.” The other witnesses included a longtime youth center director who saw no signs of abuse in four decades and a psychiatrist who diagnosed Meehan with bipolar disorder, not the post-traumatic stress disorder he claimed.

Under cross-examination, prosecutors portrayed Meehan as a violent child who continued to cause trouble at the juvenile center and a delusional adult who exaggerates or lies to get money. In her closing statement, Gaythwaite apologized for claiming Meehan deserved to be mistreated.

“If I have said or done anything to give that impression or to imply that I am not sorry for Mr. Meehan, then I regret that,” she said. “My job was to ask tough questions about tough topics so you have a complete picture of all the evidence.”

But her approach highlighted an unusual dynamic in which the attorney general's office both defends the state against civil lawsuits and prosecutes alleged perpetrators in criminal cases. Although the state relies on Meehan's testimony in the criminal cases, it has attempted to undermine his credibility in the current case.

With that in mind, Gaythwaite reminded jurors Thursday that logbooks and other records indicate Meehan sustained a groin injury while playing soccer in 1998, not from a rape in which he said he was knocked unconscious and left on a sports field. It wouldn't make sense for multiple employees to coordinate their reports, she said.

“Even if all these people were motivated to help someone cover up a crime, should you really believe that they could do it?” she said.

“Do you know of a government agency anywhere that could be this efficient and organized?” she said. “We couldn’t even get our witnesses to court on time.”

However, Vicianzo pointed out that the employee who originally documented the injury was promoted despite an ombudsman's recommendation that he be fired for hitting a teenager.

“The denial, the entitlement of our state government, of our state bureaucrats is unbelievable,” he told the jury. “It's hard to accept. You don’t have to accept it, and I’m confident you won’t.”

The jury will begin deliberations on Friday after receiving further instructions from the judge.

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Anna Harden

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