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N.H. Supreme Court to review Labrie’s request for new trial

  • Owen Labrie and his attorney, Robin Melone, look over documents at the Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord in February during an evidentiary hearing on whether he should be granted a retrial. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 10/5/2017 3:21:13 PM

St. Paul’s School graduate Owen Labrie will have his argument for a new trial reviewed by the state’s highest court.

Labrie, who was convicted in 2014 of sexually assaulting a freshman, is challenging a Merrimack County Superior Court judge’s decision not to grant him a new trial based on ineffective counsel. Judge Larry Smukler denied Labrie’s motion for a new trial in April, saying he failed to prove that his high-profile legal team was “constitutionally ineffective.”

The high court accepted the case Monday. Labrie filed a discretionary appeal, meaning the five justices had a choice on whether to hear the case or simply deny the appeal.

In March 2016, Labrie filed a direct appeal of his convictions, including a felony computer acts prohibited charge that mandates he register as a sex offender for life. That case is also pending before the Supreme Court, but is on hold until a decision is reached on his new trial request.

Labrie maintains that his high-profile defense team, funded by St. Paul’s alumni, erred by not conducting basic legal research, by not impeaching certain witnesses and by not challenging the sole felony computer charge. The legal team was led by Boston-based attorney J.W. Carney, who testified about the defense’s trial strategy during a three-day evidentiary hearing in late February.

Carney told the court that throughout the August 2015 trial, his biggest fear was jurors hearing from the three girls whom the victim had confided in. The victim spoke to those friends immediately after her encounter with Labrie, and told them she had not given her consent.

The report of another person’s words by a witness is considered hearsay and usually not allowed as evidence in court. However, if Carney or his co-counsel did not walk a tight rope, numerous witnesses could have been permitted to testify that Labrie forced himself on the girl, which would have corroborated her story, he said.

The defense’s prime witness during that hearing was New Hampshire attorney Jaye Rancourt, who served as local counsel to the out-of-state team. Rancourt made impassioned claims under oath about how she and others had failed Labrie.

Rancourt filed both Supreme Court appeals on Labrie’s behalf. However, the Supreme Court disqualified and removed her as counsel in Labrie’s discretionary appeal, as she was a member of the defense team which he argues ill-represented him. Labrie’s current lawyer is Robin Melone, and she represented him during February’s evidentiary hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke filed a motion in June asking the Supreme Court to remove Rancourt from the appeal because of the conflict. He cited a May 2016 ruling issued by Smukler that states Rancourt’s “performance at trial (was) fundamentally intertwined with the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims” and that, as a result, she could not represent Labrie moving forward.

Labrie waived his objection to Smukler’s ruling and failed to raise the issue in his discretionary appeal, Locke noted. The Supreme Court agreed.

A jury found Labrie guilty of soliciting sex through email and Facebook as part of the sexual conquest game known as the “Senior Salute.” That sexual conquest game in which upperclassmen solicited intimate encounters from younger pupils took center stage at Labrie’s criminal trial in Concord.

A highly contested issue in the case is whether the emails Labrie and the girl exchanged passed through St. Paul’s privately hosted intranet, as opposed to the more publicly accessible internet. If they stayed on the intranet, Melone argues, Labrie was wrongfully charged.

Prosecutors have stood by their decision to charge Labrie under the computer acts prohibited statute.

Labrie was also convicted of misdemeanor statutory rape and endangering the welfare of a child. He is out of jail on bail conditions pending the appeals.

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

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