Excerpts from Chessy Prout’s book: ‘I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice and Hope’
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the new book “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice and Hope,” written by Chessy Prout with Globe reporter Jenn Abelson.
Advisory: The excerpt includes descriptions of sexual acts.
[Day two of Owen Labrie’s criminal trial begins. Owen Labrie’s lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., is about to question Chessy about the night of the assault. Carney is best known for his high profile clients, infamous mobster Whitey Bulger and convicted terrorist Tarek Mehanna. Donations from members of the St. Paul’s community helped pay Carney’s substantial legal fees.]
I stared at Carney’s bald, egg-shaped head as he stood up. It was his turn now. I imagined I was standing in a boxing ring and silently hummed lyrics from Katy Perry’s “Roar,” one of the songs [my sister] Lucy put on a playlist to make me feel brave on the stand: You hear my voice, you hear that sound, Like thunder gonna shake the ground.
I refused to return Carney’s fake smile and waited for the showdown to begin. He jabbed me with short questions at first, but they were embedded with wrong assumptions about me, about decisions I’d made, about words I’d used. I knew he was trying to lure me into agreeing with things that weren’t true, and it took all of my brainpower to decipher what traps he was setting.
First he insisted that Lucy taught me that I could ignore Senior Salute invitations. Then Carney said that school advisers recommended the best approach was to simply not respond.
“That’s not correct, no,” I said, looking straight into his beady little eyes. “They knew that they had no power in that situation, that these boys would still keep objectifying us.”
“Chessy, you’ve been using words like ‘power,’ ‘empowerment,’ and ‘objectify,’ ” Carney said. “Are these words that you’ve learned in the last year?”
“No, they are not.”
What a cocky, pretentious [expletive]. He’d fit right in at St. Paul’s. Did he not think teenage girls are capable of knowing what it means to be objectified? That they can’t understand what empowerment feels like?
Carney tried to pave a golden brick road to my meeting up with Owen, lined with romantic French poetry and flirty song lyrics. But he left out important facts — namely that Owen asked a boy to pressure me into accepting his invitation. I made sure not to let those details slip past the jury, and that pissed off Carney.
“Chessy, I think things would go better if I asked a question and if you can answer it yes or no, you do so. Would you be willing to do that if you can answer a question yes or no?”
I looked over at [the prosecutor] Catherine. I had zero court experience, but I was pretty certain that I didn’t have to answer with just a yes or no.
Catherine approached Judge Smukler: “I object that the witness cannot be restricted to merely yes-or-no questions and that she is allowed to explain herself.”
“She can explain,” Judge Smukler said, “but if it’s a yes-or-no question, she can answer either yes or no, then explain.”
Catherine: 1. Carney: 0.
Carney pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose and moved on to my prior sexual experience — as if that had anything to do with whether or not I was assaulted.
“You hadn’t engaged in oral sex with a boy? Or you hadn’t been digitally penetrated by a boy?”
“No, I had not.”
Then Carney turned his attention to my expectations before meeting up with Owen. He showed me a copy of [my friend] Catie’s interview with the police and pointed forcefully at the page. Carney got so close that I could smell his breath, rotten like sour milk.
“Did you tell Catie that your expectations were like I’ll probably let him finger me and like at most I’ll blow him and that’s what you would allow to have happen, right?”
“No, that’s not true,” I responded, completely blindsided.
“Isn’t that what you told Catie when you were talking about what your expectations were of what you were going to do that night when you were with Owen?”
“No, I honestly have no recollection of saying that to her,” I said. “And if I had — no, I have no recollection of saying that to her. And it wasn’t how I was feeling while he was doing these things to me.”
I loved Catie dearly, but I knew she could be spacey and say things off-the-cuff. All that mattered was what happened in the mechanical room. I said no. And if Carney had read out loud the rest of Catie’s interview, the people in that courtroom would have learned that I told her I said no. That I pulled up my bra straps and yanked up my underwear twice. And I didn’t just confide in Catie — I told several other friends.
But of course Carney didn’t do that. Instead he latched onto Catie’s words like a cat who wouldn’t let go of a dead mouse. He asked me the same question over and over again. He was a manipulative bully, just like his client.
Carney stopped the pummeling around four p.m., just after asking me for the definition of a blow job. He paused dramatically when I answered and then suggested it was time to recess for the day. I had been on the stand for less than an hour, but I felt bloodied and bruised.
. . .
[Day three of the trial is about to begin. Carney is still questioning Chessy.]
I needed to get ready for battle. I threw fear in the corner and shoved vulnerability under the bed. Anger was coming with me to the courtroom today.
I knew I had nothing to hide. And I felt confident and empowered enough to ask Carney to rephrase loaded, winding questions and to take my time answering them.
At 9:15 a.m. Carney walked over to the witness stand again so that I could follow along with a police report he was holding. He inched so close that I could see beads of sweat on his bald head. I called him out when he missed several words in the transcript, and I looked up to Catherine for support. Carney needed to physically back up.
He resisted giving me a copy at first and whined to Judge Smukler, “Your Honor, what I’m trying to do is hold it right in front of her and use my finger so she knows exactly where I’m reading.”
Catherine found an extra copy in her file and handed it to me.
Catherine: 2. Carney: 0.
While reading another passage from my interview with Detective Curtin, Carney asked if he could skip the “ums” and “ahs.” He was asking for permission to misquote me and change the meaning of my words. His efforts to manipulate me were so obvious that I almost laughed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I would prefer if you read it word for word so they can get an accurate telling.”
“Does that change the meaning of the sentence?” Carney asked.
“Because this is just a transcript and this doesn’t tell the whole story,” I said.
“Does the word ‘um’ change the meaning of the sentence?”
“I was unsure of myself,” I said. “It’s the whole sentence, it’s the whole truth. I just want the whole truth to be read.”
I wasn’t going to let some expensive defense attorney steamroll me into changing my testimony. Then Carney pounced on my use of the word “cloudy.”
“Now, you used that word yesterday throughout your explanations to the prosecutor about why you said or did or did not do or did not say things, it was because you were cloudy or confused. Were you already being cloudy and confused the day before you got together with Owen?”
“Well, why were you cloudy?” Carney asked.
I cocked my head sideways in disbelief. Was he stupid? What the hell was this guy’s problem?
“I was raped!” I gasped, sobbing. “I was violated in so many ways. Of course I was traumatized.”
Carney tensed up and asked if we should take a recess. No. I didn’t need a break. I just needed this nightmare to end. Today would be my last day of testifying. It had to be.
Somehow I found an inexplicable strength within me to go on. I grasped on to the support around me as if it was a knife and cut away my fear, helplessness, and exhaustion. I emerged with a new armor, a steely resolve. I would not let him break me. I would not crumble.
I maintained eye contact with Carney as he tried to shut me down and make me agree to things that were untrue.
He hammered me on the seemingly cordial emails I sent to Owen after the assault, reading them in a singsongy voice and turning my assault into a [expletive] musical.
He quizzed me on my grooming habits, as if shaving my private parts was an invitation to have sex with me against my will. I wished I could grab his white beard and rip it off his face. It was preposterous to ask me, a teenage girl, about how I took care of my body and imply that it had provoked a sexual assault. I said no multiple times!
This wasn’t complicated.
I was so naive to think that all the evidence would be presented fairly and objectively to the jury. Important details would never see the light of day because of stupid legal rules intended to protect the defendant. No, this was a chance for Carney to twist and spin, shame and blame. Distract the jury with my shaving habits instead of my words. I said no.
I watched Carney’s eyes dart back and forth as he grew uncomfortable with my relentless glare. He ramped up his aggression, jabbing his finger at me, almost touching my shoulder. Carney repeatedly accused me of lying and asked absurd questions like whether I twirled my hair or tapped my fingers when I lied. I wanted to stand up and object for relevance. How could this man get away with such revolting behavior? He was the type of person who makes it so hard for victims to come forward.
Finally, by eleven a.m., Carney finished his interrogation. I left the courtroom and bolted down the stairs to find Lucy and Mom. [My family lawyer] Steve Kelly followed and told me I did great, but fury pricked my skin. I wished I could punch Carney.
Steve, as any civil attorney would do, advised against that and instead suggested that I write down some questions for Carney in my journal. Steve promised he would ask them of Carney when the trial was over, as long as the questions wouldn’t get him disbarred.
August 20, 2015: Questions for Mr. Carney/ From C.
Q. What are you wearing? Do you think the defendant could have misread intentions by your clothing?
Q. Mr. Carney, are YOUR balls shaved right now?
I showed Steve and he smiled.
[Owen Labrie was found guilty of five of the nine charges against him: three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault, one misdemeanor count of endangering the welfare of a child, and one felony count of using a computer to commit sexual assault of a child under the age of 16. The last conviction requires him to register as a sex offender for life. He was acquitted of the three felony rape charges and an additional misdemeanor charge. His appeal of his convictions is currently pending.]