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Still in jail, Owen Labrie loses last appeal in St. Paul’s sex assault case

  • Owen Labrie sits with his father before the Supreme Court arguments on whether he gets a new trial on his 2015 felony conviction on Thursday, September 13, 2108. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Owen Labrie arrives at the New Hampshire Supreme Court with his attorney Jaye Rancourt in Concord for the arguments for a new trial from 2015 on Thursday, September 13, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Supreme Court justices hear arguments from the state of New Hampshire for the case of Owen Labrie, far left, in his bid for a new trial on Thursday, September 13, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Owen Labrie enters the New Hampshire Supreme Court before his appeal on ineffective counsel in front of the court on Nov. 28 in Concord. Labrie lost his final appeal before the New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 6/7/2019 9:42:01 AM

Still serving his jail sentence, St. Paul’s School graduate Owen Labrie lost his final appeal before the New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday, nearly four years after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old classmate.

Labrie, 23, of Tunbridge, Vt., argued that his lawyers were ineffective, even though jurors acquitted him of the most serious rape charges following the August 2015 trial in Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord. On appeal, he said his high-profile defense team – led by famed Boston attorney J.W. Carney and paid for by St. Paul’s alumni – did not do all it could to defend him against a felony computer acts prohibited charge, which carries a mandatory penalty of lifetime registration as a sex offender.

A jury found Labrie guilty of using a computer to pursue the girl in spring 2014 as part of a “Senior Salute,” a game of sexual conquest in which senior boys competed for intimate encounters with younger pupils. He was also convicted of misdemeanor statutory rape and endangering the welfare of a child, but acquitted of felony-level sexual assault.

Seeking a new trial, Labrie initially appealed his lone felony conviction to the state’s highest court on the grounds the computer charge was misapplied. In a 3-0 decision, the judges denied the appeal in November, finding “ample evidence” that Labrie actively pursued the girl as part of the “salute.”

On Friday, three justices once again ruled against Labrie in a unanimous decision. They said they could not fault defense counsel for choosing to defend Labrie against all of the charges, instead of focusing more heavily on the felony computer acts prohibited charge.

“Given the number of charges that required proof of penetration and the number of felony charges that required proof of lack of consent, this was a reasonable strategy,” they wrote.

Labrie argued on appeal that his trial attorneys misunderstood the statute governing the computer-use crime and failed to tell the jury what Labrie’s intentions were at the time he contacted the girl over Facebook and email. The attorney general’s office argued Labrie’s trial team provided effective counsel that led to his acquittal on aggravated felonious sexual assault charges that carried a penalty of 30 to 60 years in state prison.

In their decision, the justices disagreed with Labrie that defense counsel was ill-versed on the computer charge and its application to his case. Rather, they said, Labrie’s attorneys understood that he could be found not guilty of all misdemeanor and felony sexual assault charges and still be convicted of the computer use felony.

“Also reasonable is trial counsel’s belief that if the jury had found that no sexual penetration occurred, it would also likely find that the defendant lacked the intent to sexually penetrate when he sent the victim electronic messages in the days leading up to their encounter,” the justices said. “In addition, although counsel did not specifically refer to the computer services use charge in his opening statement or closing argument, it was reasonable for him to count on the court’s jury instructions to remind the jury of the elements of that charge.”

Whether Labrie had used St. Paul’s privately-hosted intranet service provider or the internet to send the “salute” invitation made no difference, the court found.

The high court handed down its decision Friday as Labrie continues to serve the remainder of a one-year jail sentence at the Merrimack County jail in Boscawen. Labrie returned to jail Dec. 26 and is scheduled to be released June 24.

Labrie previously served 63 days of his one-year sentence after he repeatedly violated the curfew set in his bail conditions. A judge revoked bail in March 2016 after it surfaced that Labrie had traveled to Boston several times from his home in Vermont, often leaving before dawn and returning late at night. Labrie’s lawyer said he was meeting with attorneys and educators, while prosecutors countered that Labrie was actually visiting a girlfriend at Harvard. Bail was reinstituted that May.

Shortly after losing his first appeal in late 2018, Labrie had asked a superior court judge to reduce his one-year jail sentence so he would serve no more than the 63 days.

“I think given the crimes and the circumstances that it’s just not appropriate to amend the sentence at this time,” ruled Judge Larry Smukler, who presided over the 2015 trial.

Smukler also denied the defense’s request for Labrie to be allowed out of jail on work release.

A year after the high-profile trial, sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout shed her anonymity 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, said in a statement Friday afternoon that they are thankful to the court for its decision and ready to move forward.

“After five long years, we are grateful to be at the end of the criminal justice process,” the Prouts said. “The irony is not lost that this appeal challenged the counsel paid for by the St. Paul’s community.”

The family said they’ve heard from countless survivors of sexual violence whose stories highlight the work still left to do to address rape culture at private schools and beyond.

“We believe that all young people have the right to an education free from sexual assault and harassment,” the Prouts said. “We will continue to work towards this goal.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

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