Jury sides with York County newspaper in libel case

A York County jury has sided with Mainely Media in a lawsuit over weekly newspaper articles about sexual abuse allegations against a former Biddeford police officer.

The civil trial ended on Wednesday with a unanimous verdict in favor of the press group and two former employees. The case involved articles published in the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Courier in the spring of 2015.

“The plaintiffs sued not only the newspaper, but individual reporters in an effort to scare them and chill their speech,” said Cynthia Counts, an Atlanta attorney who represented the defendants. “The unanimous jury verdict not only exonerates the newspaper and its reporters, but also helps vindicate the teenage boys (now male) who never had a chance to present their sexual abuse allegations before a judge and jury. “

Former police officer Norman Gaudette and his wife filed their lawsuit for compensatory and punitive damages on six claims, including defamation. In 2019, Superior Court Judge John O’Neil denied some applications and allowed others to proceed to trial by jury. That trial took place in March in York County Superior Court in Alfred and lasted more than two weeks.

Court records show that the nine jurors found the Gaudettes failed to prove at trial that the allegations in the articles were false, so the other allegations in the trial failed. Gene Libby, the attorney who represented the Gaudettes in that lawsuit, did not respond to an email or voicemail Friday afternoon. Plaintiffs can appeal the verdict.

O’Neil outlined the details of the case in his 2019 order. He wrote that at least five people charged Gaudette with sex crimes in 1990 and that the Biddeford Police Department placed him on administrative leave for a period of time. that the Maine Attorney General’s office was conducting an investigation that did not result in criminal charges. Gaudette denied the allegations against him.

The allegations resurfaced in 2014, when a Biddeford native said another former officer, Stephen Dodd, had sexually assaulted him years earlier when he was a teenager. Following these public accusations, other men brought charges against Dodd and Gaudette. The judge wrote that two Courier staff members began investigating the allegations and published several articles in early 2015.

Counts, the newspaper’s lawyer, said Gaudette returned from administrative leave and continued to work for the Biddeford Police Department until his retirement in 2001. Neither Dodd nor Gaudette faced any criminal charges, but four people have filed federal civil rights lawsuits related to the allegations. Two cases have named Gaudette as a defendant, and both are still open in U.S. District Court in Maine. The counts said witnesses in this trial include three accusers, who testified emotionally about their experiences.

Mainely Media publishes the Courier, Scarborough Leader, Kennebunk Post and South Portland Sentry, which are distributed free to homes in Cumberland and York counties. The press group has been owned since 2018 by Reade Brower, which also owns the Portland Press Herald. The previous owner was the Sample News Group, headquartered in Pennsylvania.

The individual defendants named in the lawsuit were Molly Lovell Keely and Ben Meiklejohn. Keely was the editor and Meiklejohn was an editor. Neither of them still works at Mainely Media.

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