Julia Russell, center, leaves the U.S. District Courthouse in Portland on Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A federal jury ruled Thursday night in favor of a Biddeford woman in her suit against a former family friend whom she accused of sexually abusing her as a child.

The eight-member jury awarded Julia Russell $4.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, finding Philip Chenevert, 73, liable for one civil count of assault and battery and one civil count of inflicting emotional distress.

“The most empowering thing that you can tell a survivor of sexual abuse is that you believe them,” Russell’s attorney Meryl Poulin said Thursday night. “And that’s what this jury did.”

The verdict came after more than two hours of deliberation, following four days of often detailed and explicit testimony. That included a full day of testimony from Russell, 36, on Tuesday, who told jurors that Chenevert began abusing her when she was about 6 years old in 1992. Russell and several mental health experts, including her therapist, testified about the ways that abuse continues to impact her well-being and her ability to maintain healthy relationships.

No criminal charges have been filed against Chenevert.

As the jury left the courtroom after the verdict, going back to deliberate punitive damages, Russell’s supporters erupted with hugs and tears. She hugged her attorney before moving to the back of the room to embrace her friends and family.


Chenevert remained at the front of the room with one of his attorneys, Tyler Smith. Both Smith and Chenevert declined to speak with the Press Herald Thursday night. Chenevert’s lead attorney, Gene Libby, had left the courtroom by the time the jury’s verdict was delivered.


There was a time when Chenevert considered the Russells among his closest friends in Maine. He met Russell’s father when they were teenagers in Biddeford Pool in the late 1960s. The two reconnected as young adults, Chenevert was a groomsman at the Russells’ wedding. He continued to visit their home in Saco weekly for family dinners and holiday celebrations, becoming a “surrogate father” figure to Russell as he nurtured many of her “tomboyish” interests in cars and boats.

But Russell’s attorneys said Chenevert used these interests as an excuse to get close to Russell so that he could abuse her. Chenevert asked her to keep the abuse a secret, Russell said, and he promised to stop the abuse whenever she wanted – giving Russell the impression that she was complicit in her own abuse.

Chenevert denied claims that he abused Russell and other women who came forward to testify during her trial, saying they endured similar abuse. He told the jury his struggles with erectile dysfunction at the time would’ve made certain allegations of abuse impossible, and that he could not recall being left alone with any of the girls.

That defense didn’t rebut all of the allegations that Russell described on Tuesday, including times when he would inappropriately touch her in her family’s computer room while her parents were in the next room.


In closing arguments before the verdict was delivered, Libby asked jurors to consider how close Russell and Chenevert were as friends, even after the abuse ended around 1994.

Chenevert gave Russell her first high school job at an auto body shop he owned in Arundel. He helped her buy a jeep and a boat. They both received an award in 2000 from local police for aiding in a water rescue that year. The two regularly exchanged gifts, even when Russell had moved away for college.

Philip Chenevert leaving the U.S. District Courthouse in Portland on Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Julia Russell had a long, close, trusting relationship for years and years and years after the abuse. And that has never been explained to you,” Libby said to the jury. “It’s a contradiction you’re going to have to resolve.”

Russell has said her continued contact with Chenevert is complicated. While the effects of the alleged abuse continued to weigh on her mind and led her to isolate from loved ones, she testified Tuesday that she struggled with speaking out and she was embarrassed that she didn’t stop Chenevert sooner.


Taylor Asen, another of Russell’s attorneys, said during his closing arguments that one of the most suspicious aspects of Chenevert’s testimony was his “selective” memory.


“What you heard over and over again was ‘I don’t recall,'” Asen said, referring to Chenevert’s uniform responses on Monday when asked if he was ever left alone with Russell or other women who have accused him of abuse.

While Chenevert could recall “intricate details” about the layouts of his office from more than 30 years ago, his boats and the Russells’ computer room, Asen said Chenevert repeatedly said he couldn’t recall any instances of being alone with children in those places.

“When Mr. Chenevert says ‘I don’t remember being alone with Julia’ … what he’s really saying is, ‘I know what I did,'” Asen said.

Libby, meanwhile, cast doubt on the quality of Russell’s memories and questioned her motivation for speaking to the Portland Press Herald in 2021 about the abuse and the experience of sharing that with her family shortly after filing her complaint in federal court.

Libby said the age of the claims and the publicity created an unfair disadvantage to Chenevert in his ability to defend himself.

“Indeed, it was a hit piece,” Libby told jurors. “It was a piece that when you read it, all you are left with is a feeling of vilification for Philip Chenevert.”

Neither Chenevert nor Libby responded to voicemail and social media messages from the Press Herald before that 2021 article was published.

Though Russell is the only woman with allegations against Chenevert to file a lawsuit, Asen asked the jury to consider the testimony of two other women.

“Think about what the defendant is asking you to believe,” Asen said. “By coincidence, three women, completely and independently of each other, with no motive, made up claims about the same man.”

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