N.H. Supreme Court finds ‘ample evidence’ to support Labrie’s felony conviction

Monitor staff
Published: 11/6/2018 9:18:19 AM

The St. Paul’s School graduate convicted in 2015 of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old freshman lost one of his two appeals before the New Hampshire Supreme Court in a unanimous vote released Tuesday.

Owen Labrie, 23, of Tunbridge, Vt., appealed his lone felony conviction of “certain uses of computer services prohibited,” which carries a mandatory lifetime registration as a sex offender. A Merrimack County jury had found Labrie guilty in August 2015 of using a computer to invite the girl on a “Senior Salute,” a game of sexual conquest in which senior boys competed for intimate encounters with younger pupils.

Labrie’s bid for a new trial is not yet over; his separate appeal for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel is scheduled for oral arguments later this month.

In a 3-0 decision, the justices found overwhelming evidence to support the computer-use statute and rejected defense counsel’s “narrow interpretation” of the law.

“At trial, the State presented ample evidence of the defendant’s active participation in the senior salute, as well as his pursuit of the victim as a much-desired conquest,” the justices ruled in a decision written by Chief Justice Robert Lynn.

Lynn continued, “The defendant’s actions prior to, during, and after his encounter with the victim support the jury’s finding of the requisite intent at the time he sent the computer communications.”

Labrie’s attorney, Jaye Rancourt, had argued the felony conviction should be thrown out, in part, because Labrie’s intentions at the time he sent the “salute” invitation were not to “deceive, manipulate or exploit” the girl. Rather, Rancourt said, Labrie was communicating with a fellow student on a platform commonly used by young people and made no explicit requests for sexual contact.

Conversely, Senior Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke maintained the string of messages from Labrie and his actions following the initial invitation show he intended to do more than just take the girl out on a date.

Jurors acquitted Labrie of felony-level sexual assault, instead convicting him of misdemeanor statutory rape and endangering the welfare of a child. His only felony conviction was using a computer to pursue the girl.

In a statement Tuesday, Rancourt said she is “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision, which illustrates how the computer-use statute is “seriously flawed.”

The justices also disagreed with Rancourt about the lower court’s ruling with respect to cross-examination of Andrew Thomson, one of four friends who testified about Labrie’s behavior toward female students in the spring of 2014 when Labrie sexually assaulted the girl.

During a bench conference, Labrie’s attorney, J.W. Carney, suggested Thomson had engaged in similar illicit relations with an underage girl that the school had handled internally because Thomson is the son of Lucy Hodder, former legal counsel to former governor Maggie Hassan and a member of St. Paul’s board of trustees. While the judge initially prohibited a line of questioning about that alleged relationship, defense counsel was given a second opportunity to recall the witness but failed to do so, the Supreme Court said.

Lastly, the justices found that a county prosecutor’s mischaracterization of evidence regarding semen on the victim’s underwear was not enough to remand the case back to the lower court for a new trial. Any misstatements would have been addressed through jury instruction when jurors were told that lawyers’ arguments are not evidence, the justices ruled.

A year after the high-profile trial, sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout shed her anonymity and told her story for the first time on national television. She has since published a memoir, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, giving readers an unfiltered look into her assault, the criminal trial and her decision to go public.

Her parents, Alex and Susan Prout, responded favorably of the Supreme Court’s ruling in a statement Tuesday, and thanked local prosecutors and victim advocacy organizations for their compassionate treatment of Chessy and for their diligence throughout the criminal justice process.

“The past four years in this process have been long and grueling for our daughter and our family, and we sincerely hope the process is nearing an end. We applaud our daughter’s courage in shattering the silence and persisting through a long and difficult fight for justice,” the Prouts wrote. “Chessy and our entire family are committed to encouraging other survivors to seek help and support to help them find their path for justice and healing.”

Labrie will be back in court later this month to argue that his trial team was ineffective at defending him against the computer-use charge. Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler previously denied the request for a new trial, ruling that Labrie had “highly experienced and prepared defense attorneys who, overall, made reasonable strategic and tactical decisions throughout the trial.”

Oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 28 at 9:30 a.m. in Concord.

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