Owen Labrie guilty of having sex with minor, girl’s family calls it ‘a measure of justice’

Last modified: 8/29/2015 1:13:04 AM
He remained stoic through days of condemning testimony. Through the tears of his accuser as she recounted a painful, terrifying sexual assault. Through the messages dredged up from his online accounts and recited for jurors, their salaciousness, pretentiousness, lingering in the crowded Concord courtroom.

But on Friday, the polished facade of Owen Labrie, the 19-year-old former honors student accused of raping a freshman girl at St. Paul’s School, finally cracked.

As a jury of nine men and three women announced the verdict – guilty on five counts, including computer acts prohibited, a felony sex crime punishable by up to 3½-7 years in prison – Labrie buried his face in his hands. His head shook. He wept.

His victim, now 16, sat one row back, her parents’ arms wrapped tightly around her shoulders. This was a victory for them, but it was by no means a happy one.

“We still feel betrayed that St. Paul’s School allowed and fostered a toxic culture that left our daughter and other students at risk to sexual violence,” they said in a statement, pointing to an annual student ritual that prosecutors claim led to the attack. “We trusted the school to protect her and it failed.”

In the end, Labrie was cleared of the most serious charges against him – three counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault. But in addition to the computer crime, he was convicted of three counts of statutory rape and one count of endangering the welfare of a child, all misdemeanors. The computer charge alone will mean lifetime registration as a sex offender.

“Owen’s future is forever changed,” his attorney, J.W. Carney, told reporters outside Merrimack County Superior Court. “A conviction like this will be like a brand, a tattoo. It will be impossible to erase.”

Jurors essentially found that Labrie had sex with the girl when she was below the legal age of consent – 16 in New Hampshire – but that she had not clearly indicated her lack of permission to warrant the aggravated counts. The girl testified that she tried to stop him three times during the encounter, on May 30, 2014, but that she also helped him take her clothes off and laughed nervously as he became more aggressive. The computer charge involved his use of online messages to lure her to the scene of the attack.

The case, like so many involving alleged sexual assault, had come down to her word against his. But as prosecutors asserted Thursday, Labrie’s account was tenuous, at best. He denied on the stand that they had sex, but told four close friends he had. He said the girl’s underwear stayed on, but his skin cells and unspecified semen and sperm were found on the inside crotch panel. Minutes after the encounter, he asked the girl if she was using birth control.

The defense questioned the girl’s credibility in response, noting that she behaved affectionately toward Labrie after the encounter, infusing her messages to him with French and “hahaha”s, and had told friends that night that she was not positive they had sex. She also allegedly told a friend before the encounter that she expected to engage with Labrie sexually.

But the girl, who was 15 at the time, said she feared upsetting Labrie, a popular senior and appointed student leader headed to Harvard that fall, and ruining her own reputation in turn. She said she also blamed herself at first for not doing enough to stop him, claiming she “froze” as he penetrated her inside a dark attic on campus.

The case has brought national attention to the school and a purported springtime tradition called “senior salute,” in which graduating students proposition younger schoolmates for dates, sometimes to include sex. Prosecutors said Labrie and a friend were competing to sleep with younger women, and they created a list of potential conquests, on which the victim’s name appeared in all caps.

Lawyers for the family declined to comment Friday on potential lawsuits against the school.

In a statement, St. Paul’s commended the girl for stepping forward and vowed to “continue to focus on teaching our students our core values – that they live honorably, respectfully, and never forget to be kind.”

“The entire St. Paul’s School community has been deeply affected by this incident,” Rector Michael Hirschfeld said in a statement. “It is our responsibility to ensure that our students live and learn together in a community that is built on respect, caring, and support for one another.”

Labrie remains free on $15,000 personal recognizance bail, but he has been ordered to stay with his mother in Tunbridge, Vt., and submit to a daily 5 p.m. curfew. He will have to turn over his passport in coming days. Prosecutors asked that bail be increased to $50,000 cash, insisting that he is a flight risk. They also expressed concern about his mother, Denise Holland, who Labrie says advised him to delete 119 potentially incriminating Facebook messages at the beginning of the investigation.

As the verdict was read, Holland closed her eyes, tucked her head and began to quietly sob. His father, Cannon Labrie, looked off in apparent disbelief. They divorced when Labrie was an infant, and neither has the type of wealth typically associated with St. Paul’s. Labrie attended the school on full scholarship, and had planned to do the same at Harvard. He said he planned to continue on to divinity school.

The girl has since left St. Paul’s. Her father has flown in from out-of-state again and again over the last year, as Labrie’s case continued, slowed by the arrival of multiple new attorneys.

Labrie finally settled on Carney, a high-profile Boston defender, after a fundraising blitz early this year.

“Today, a measure of justice has been served for victims of sexual violence,” the girl’s parents said in the statement, which was read by a family representative outside the courthouse. “While he was not convicted on all charges, Owen Labrie was held accountable in some way by a jury of his peers for crimes he committed against our daughter. This conviction requires him to take ownership for his actions and gives him the opportunity to reflect upon the harm he has caused.”

A sentencing date is set for Oct. 29. Judge Larry Smukler ordered a pre-sentencing review by the state Department of Corrections, which will be used to guide an eventual punishment. Labrie faces up to an additional year of incarceration for each misdemeanor.

He was initially charged with a second count of endangering the welfare of a child, for of his role as a prefect in his dorm, but prosecutors could not prove that he had supervision over the girl and agreed to throw it out.

Labrie left the courthouse stone-faced, stepping into a blue pickup truck and forcefully clasping hands with Carney before being quickly driven off. A sea of reporters and photographers stood waiting.

Carney said he planned to appeal the felony computer charge, noting that it had been set up for aggravated rapists, not teenagers who have “consensual sex.”

The statute was “never intended for kids getting together consensually at the high school that they both attend,” he said. “It’s overreaching, and I expect we will address it in a motion to be filed within the next 30 days.”

He added: “Owen is devastated.”

Deputy County Attorney Catherine Ruffle, the lead prosecutor, thanked jurors and said she hoped their verdict provides a light to victims who have yet to step forward.

“We hope that this will send a message to future cases and victims, that will allow them the strength and courage to come forward,” she said.

County Attorney Scott Murray echoed the sentiment, and praised the girl for weathering the intense scrutiny and media attention brought by the case.

“The verdict is a testament to the courage and the stamina and the endurance of one young woman who was sexually violated,” he said, “who managed to navigate her way through the criminal justice system to obtain some measure of justice.”

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


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