Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Become a sustaining member and you could win a trip to Barbados!

Nine months after death at NH prison psych unit, a former guard is charged with murder

The Secure Psychiatric Unit at the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.
Paige Sutherland
The Secure Psychiatric Unit at the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.

A former New Hampshire corrections officer has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of a patient at a prison psychiatric unit last year.

State authorities announced an "untimely death" at the Secure Psychiatric Unit in Concord on April 29, and later said 50-year-old Jason Rothe died as a result of an altercation with six corrections officers. In the nine months since, authorities have said little more about the incident — and did not release autopsy results until Thursday.

Prosecutors now allege one of those guards, 39-year-old Matthew Millar of Boscawen, caused Rothe to asphyxiate by kneeling on his “torso/neck area” for several minutes while he was handcuffed and face down on the floor. That action, state investigators note, went against both Millar’s training and official Department of Corrections policy.

The state medical examiner’s office ruled Rothe’s death a homicide and said the cause was combined compressional and positional asphyxia, the New Hampshire Department of Justice said in a news release.

At an arraignment Thursday in Concord, Millar’s lawyer said he intends to plead not guilty. He was held without bail pending further proceedings. The Department of Justice said it does not anticipate criminally charging any of the other officers in connection with the death.

The officers involved in the incident were placed on leave immediately after the incident but returned to duty after an administrative review “based on information available to the department at that time,” the Department of Corrections said in a statement Thursday.

The agency said Commissioner Helen Hanks has placed the officers back on leave and ordered another internal review “based on new information made available to the department today."

The corrections department said Millar’s employment ended Dec. 13 but did not specify the reason.

Earlier coverage: Death renews concerns about conditions at NH Secure Psychiatric Unit: 'This is a prison. This is not a hospital.'

State investigators say guards violated policy in confrontation with patient

The Secure Psychiatric Unit is run by the Department of Corrections on the grounds of the state prison in Concord. It houses prisoners serving criminal sentences as well as people who are civilly committed due to a mental illness, if it's determined they cannot be treated safely at the state psychiatric hospital.

Mental health advocates have long criticized the state for placing people who have not been convicted of a crime in the custody of the state prison system.

According to documents filed in court Thursday, Rothe was civilly committed to New Hampshire Hospital in 2019 due to mental illness. The hospital transferred him to the Secure Psychiatric Unit in 2022 out of concern he posed a risk to himself or others, where he remained until his death.

On April 29, according to court documents detailing an investigation by New Hampshire State Police, Rothe was refusing to leave a “day room” in the Secure Psychiatric Unit. Officers decided to forcibly remove him after he was allegedly becoming uncooperative and argumentative.

While confronting Rothe, police said one prison officer struck him repeatedly in the face, and another tried to subdue him with a stun gun. Officers eventually pinned him face down on the floor and handcuffed him behind his back. Millar then continued to kneel on Rothe’s upper back or neck area for an extended period of time and caused him to asphyxiate, according to court documents.

Rothe’s injuries included bleeding under the surface of his upper back, likely from the pressure being applied. He also had petechial hemorrhages — tiny spots of bleeding — in the mouth, forehead and lower respiratory tract, according to an autopsy conducted by Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Mitchell Weinberg.

Weinberg determined the combination of the prone position Rothe was placed in and the compression of his chest restricted his breathing and caused his death.

Corrections officers in New Hampshire are trained to never leave anyone in a prone position once they’re restrained for that reason, according to an instructor with the state corrections academy who spoke to State Police.

The officer in charge for that shift, Cpl. Lesley-Ann Cosgro, told investigators that Rothe’s refusal to leave the room was not putting anyone in danger. She acknowledged that, according to department policy, officers should have continued trying to deescalate the situation, rather than using force when they did.

Updated: February 8, 2024 at 7:48 PM EST
The story was updated with additional information from court documents.
Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.