Former prep school student acquitted of felony rape in split verdict
CONCORD, NH – A New Hampshire jury on Friday convicted Owen Labrie of five counts — including one felony — in connection with the sexual assault of another student at a prestigious boarding school, but it acquitted him of more serious charges.
Labrie, 19, a former student at the elite St. Paul’s School, appeared shaken as the verdict was read, at one point nodding his head and reaching for a tissue to wipe tears.
At the time of the assault, the accuser was 15 and Labrie was an 18-year-old senior.
Labrie was convicted of a felony charge and four misdemeanors: the most serious count being the use of an online service or the Internet to seduce, solicit or entice a child under age of 16 in order to a commit sexual assault. He also was convicted of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault and child endangerment.
At his October 29 sentencing, Labrie could face a maximum sentence of up to 11 years. Labrie, who will have to register for inclusion on the sex offender list, was released on bail.
But he was acquitted of three counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault — punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison — as well as simple assault, a misdemeanor.
The jury, made up of nine men and three women, deliberated for 7½ hours.
In a statement, the victim’s family said: “A a measure of justice has been served for victims of sexual violence. 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. There is no joy in this outcome, however, as our daughter can never get back what she has lost nor can St. Paul’s School ever be our community again.”
In the statement, the family said it felt “betrayed that St. Paul’s School allowed and fostered a toxic culture that left our daughter and other students at risk to sexual violence. We trusted the school to protect her and it failed us.”
On Wednesday, Labrie — with his accuser watching in the courtroom — took the stand and described the encounter last year as consensual. He said the two of them sneaked into an attic room in a St. Paul’s School academic building a few days before graduation and together spread a flannel blanket Labrie had brought with him.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Joseph Cherniske told the jury that the defendant carefully planned out a sexual assault and viewed the taking of the girl’s virginity as a source of pride.
“It wasn’t the school’s fault,” he said, rebutting the defense argument that St. Paul’s encouraged a tradition known as the “Senior Salute” in which seniors sought to have sexual encounters with younger students.
Defense attorney J.W. Carney accused St. Paul’s of allowing the “Senior Salute” to flourish.
“The idea that you would wink at a tradition that ‘Senior Salute’ represents is shocking,” he said, denying that his client sexually penetrated the girl.
“It damages children and in this case it damaged both (the accuser) and Owen,” he said. “When you saw the culture of St. Paul’s, it was one that encouraged, I submit, the concept of ‘Senior Salute.’ In fact, it was so revered on the campus it became a tradition.”
The trial has brought unwanted attention to the elite school, the alma mater of Secretary of State John Kerry and half a dozen congressmen.
On Wednesday, Labrie testified that sweatshirts, shirts and later pants were removed but the two kept their underwear on.
When a defense attorney asked about their demeanor, Labrie testified they were both giggling and smiling and that the girl held him in an affectionate way.
“I thought she was having a great time,” he said.
Labrie, 18 at the time, said that he may have gotten carried away at times, leading to bruises she reported on her breasts. They were both aroused, he said, so he went to put a condom on, but he stopped himself.
“I thought I was going to have sex with this girl,” he said, but after getting the condom, he testified, he changed his mind.
“It wouldn’t have been a good move to have sex with this girl,” he told the court. “It would not have been a good choice for me to make.”
The liaison awkwardly ended after a few more brief kisses, and Labrie hurried to a choir concert, he said.
The accuser, now 16, testified last week that Labrie penetrated her with his fingers before raping her.
“I was raped!” she said when a defense attorney suggested she had sent conflicting signals to the defendant.
The defense depicted Labrie as a great student, on a full scholarship, who wanted to attend Harvard, take divinity classes and perhaps become a minister.
The prosecution repeatedly questioned him about telling friends after the encounter that he had sex with the girl.
He was bragging and lying, Labrie told the court.
He also said for the first time that his boxers were damp and he may have ejaculated on them before he put on a condom. He didn’t tell police about it, he said, because their questions focused on whether the two had sex.
State criminalist Katie Swango said semen and sperm were found on the young woman’s underwear. Further testing of sperm cells found on the underwear were inconclusive. However, some of the biological material found on the underwear matched Labrie’s DNA, she said.
Another state criminalist, Kevin McMahon, said he examined a swab from the accuser’s cervix and found no evidence of sperm.
Labrie’s accuser didn’t stay in the courtroom for the entire testimony. As he was reading emails the two had exchanged, she stormed out of the courtroom, crying.
She returned when prosecutors questioned Labrie.
Labrie testified that the two knew each other through the girl’s older sister, whom he dated for a short time.
Prosecutors repeatedly asked the defendant about his use of the words “slay,” “pork” and “score” and the meaning they had in his conversations with male friends. Labrie testified they were terms used loosely that could mean a range of activities, from kissing to sex.
He testified later that he always kept a condom in his wallet, something he did throughout high school.
‘I tried to be as polite as possible”
Labrie first told Concord police Detective Julie Curtin that the girl had the condom, and then he said it was his, the detective testified. Labrie called the girl and her sister “angels,” the detective said, and insisted he would never have had sex with her because of her age.
Curtin said Labrie became frustrated because detectives kept asking about the “Senior Salute.” He said that seniors took younger girls’ virginity with a sense of pride and that younger girls were often proud to lose their virginity to seniors, Curtin said.
On the stand, the girl said she agreed to meet Labrie and accompany him to a machine room. When they kissed, she did not object, she testified. But soon he began to grope her. He bit her chest and tried to remove her underwear, she said.
“I said, ‘No, no, no, keep it up here,’ ” she testified, signaling above her waist. “I tried to be as polite as possible.”