Four-day evidentiary hearing to start Tuesday in Owen Labrie case

  • Convicted St. Paul’s School graduate Owen Labrie appears in Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord in March 2016. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 2/18/2017 10:49:56 PM

A judge’s decision on whether to grant Owen Labrie a retrial could set new precedent in criminal cases where the defendant is accused of using a computer to solicit a minor for sex.

Labrie, 21, who was convicted of having sex with an underage schoolmate, is challenging his lone felony conviction, which requires him to register as a sex offender for life. In his motion for a new trial, Labrie claims his attorneys waited too long to contest the computer-use charge and, further, failed to press for more exhaustive jury instructions on it.

The St. Paul’s graduate was acquitted of felony-level sexual assault but found guilty of statutory rape and endangering the welfare of a child, both misdemeanors. His conviction on the computer acts prohibited charge arose from the online messages he and the 15-year-old freshman exchanged in setting up the encounter.

Labrie’s trial lawyer, J.W. Carney, denounced the charge after the verdict was read in August 2015, claiming the statute was “never intended for kids getting together consensually at the high school that they both attend.” In the weeks after Labrie’s conviction, Carney argued unsuccessfully to have the felony conviction thrown out.

Beginning Tuesday, Labrie, represented by his new attorney, Robin Melone, could call Carney and other members of his former defense team to the witness stand, as he tries to convince a judge that they were ineffective in representing him. The four-day evidentiary hearing will take place in Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord before Judge Larry Smukler, who presided over the high-profile trial.

The computer statute that resulted in the stiffest punishment for Labrie was enacted in 1998, in the wake of a Nashua case involving a 13-year-old girl who met a 22-year-old man in an online chat room and then ran away with him. The law is designed to protect minors from adult predators who may be lurking online in hopes of facilitating a sexual encounter.

While Labrie’s defense team argued that his conviction on the computer-use charge was cruel and unusual punishment, prosecutors stood by their decision to charge Labrie under the computer statute.

In written statements provided to the court under oath in December, Carney wrote that his focus was on defeating the allegation that Labrie had committed felony sexual assault and on placing reasonable doubt in jurors’ minds that there was a sexual encounter. He said if jurors believed Labrie’s testimony, they would acquit him of the misdemeanor sexual assault charges and the computer-use charge.

“It never occurred to me prior to the trial or during it to address the conflict that existed between the computer-use penalty of mandatory registration and the command of the Legislature that a defendant convicted of a misdemeanor sexual assault would not have to register,” Carney wrote.

Further, he said, he never gave it any thought to call for additional specificity in juror instructions, such as “if you find A, you cannot find B.” Carney argued that if jurors acquitted Labrie of felony sexual assault, than they should have also acquitted him of the computer-use charge.

Many of Labrie’s arguments for a new trial center on the computer-use charge. He says his attorneys failed to investigate whether his emails left St. Paul’s locally-hosted intranet server, and if they didn’t whether the statute applies. Jury nullification and selective prosecution also should have been explored, Labrie’s new legal team argued. (A jury can nullify a law when it believes the law has wrongly been applied, even in cases where it finds the defendant guilty.)

Deputy Merrimack County Attorney Catherine Ruffle, the lead prosecutor on the case, filed Tuesday a motion for judgment on the pleadings and the record, arguing the evidentiary hearings are unnecessary. She wrote that many of the issues Labrie raises are legal ones, which can be decided based on the existing record. Other arguments can also be evaluated through an independent review of the transcripts, pleadings and prior orders, without the need for new testimony, she said.

As the criminal proceedings play out, a civil lawsuit filed by the victim’s family against St. Paul’s School is also moving forward in U.S. District Court in Concord. Alex and Susan Prout, parents of Chessy Prout, filed the civil lawsuit against the Concord prep school this past summer, arguing the school failed to prevent the sexual assault of their daughter.

They originally filed the lawsuit under the names John and Jane Doe to protect Chessy. However, St. Paul’s later objected to the family’s use of pseudonyms in the civil proceedings. Soon after, Chessy Prout came forward, deciding to shed her anonymity on national television. She said during her Today show interview that she hopes to empower other survivors of sexual abuse with her story.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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