Rape accusations and school traditions on display in Labrie case

Last modified: 8/23/2015 12:26:13 AM
It began with a headline moving across the wire last weekend: “Rape case points to sordid tradition at elite prep school.”

“When his trial begins Monday, prosecutors are expected to call current and former students to testify about the sexual culture at one of the country’s most selective boarding schools,” Associated Press reporter Lynne Tuohy wrote in her article.

The case, of course, was that of Owen Labrie, St. Paul’s School graduate accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl last year, as part of an annual ritual among seniors to have sexual contact with younger students. Labrie’s arrest last July drew regional attention, and local news outlets have been covering the claims against him – and those involving the school’s response – ever since.

But the world had not yet taken note.

Then, kaboom. The Washington Post ran Tuohy’s piece last Sunday. By Monday, CNN was following with its own coverage, and the New York Times and NBC had each sent correspondents to Concord. By Tuesday morning, the rickety old courthouse downtown was swarming with journalists and camera crews, poised for opening arguments.

Each day, reporters from as far as New York have crammed into a tiny upstairs courtroom, crowding benches and straining to hear testimony over their own furious typing and the drone of an air-conditioning system.

The frenzy may have come as no shock, as St. Paul’s prides itself on academic achievement and a deep roster of notable alumni, Secretary of State John Kerry among them. And the alleged context surrounding the encounter – an 18-year-old Harvard-bound upperclassman competing with friends to sleep with younger girls – was unnerving on its own, given the recent national focus on campus sexual assault.

While the trial is far from over – testimony continues Monday – the treatment it has already received by the press has become a sort of story behind the story, with what victims advocates say are direct implications for future cases involving alleged abuse.

The biggest issue has involved Twitter, which many reporters – this one included – have been using to publish live-updates from the court. Some of those updates have provided wrenching details of the girl’s testimony, as she weathered hours of questioning and cross examination. But others have concerned her parents and local advocates.

Amanda Grady Sexton, public policy director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, pointed to the dangers of live reporting, noting that reporters “don’t have that opportunity for editors to weigh in on important journalistic decisions.”

“It is very likely that things are being published that wouldn’t have otherwise made it to print because a discussion would have taken place about what is the fair thing to report,” she said, adding, “Victims are watching and seeing what this very courageous teen is being subjected to. And I’m afraid this is a deterrent, and that’s really heartbreaking.”

It is the Monitor’s and many other news organization’s policy not to identify reported victims of sexual assault unless they decide otherwise.

On Thursday, the judge in the case, Larry Smukler, issued an order limiting the number of reporters who can “broadcast” from the court.

Grady Sexton, who is attending the Labrie trial and keeping tabs on the reporting on it, said she hopes the attention starts a broader dialogue about how best to cover similar sensitive cases. The state already has another high-profile case scheduled for March, involving Nathaniel Kibby, the Gorham man accused of kidnapping a 14-year-old girl and raping her over the course of nine months.

Media outlets, including the Monitor, published the girl’s name after she disappeared. Earlier this year, her family and prosecutors asked that it no longer be published because they fear the publicity will slow her recovery.

Smukler is planning to preside over the Kibby trial, and Associate Attorney General Jane Young, the state’s lead prosecutor in the case, was present observing the first two days of the Labrie trial.

“We’re about to have the whole world’s eyes on New Hampshire during the Kibby trial, involving another juvenile sexual assault victim, and we as a community need to come together to have a discussion about best practices for the courts and the media,” Grady Sexton said. “We have an opportunity to set the tone for the national press about our expectations.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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