The conviction of a former student at St. Paul’s School for using Facebook and school e-mails to seduce a 15-year-old classmate will force him to register as a sex offender for life and face the possibility of as much as seven years in prison, despite his acquittal on felony rape charges.
Legal specialists said the jury’s verdict Friday showed the panel did not believe Owen Labrie’s claim that he did not have sexual intercourse with his accuser, but did not find that it was against the girl’s will.
“Implicit in the jury verdict is they believed he was lying, but he wasn’t convicted of offenses where he engaged in sexual intercourse against her consent,” said Albert “Buzz” Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.
The jury found Labrie guilty of five of nine counts he faced, including three misdemeanor sexual assaults that include allegations that he had intercourse with a minor who was too young to legally give consent, and a misdemeanor charge of endangering a child. He was acquitted of three aggravated felonious sexual-assault charges and a misdemeanor assault charge.
It was Labrie’s conviction for using a computer to entice the victim that exposes him to the harshest penalties. He faces up to a year on each of the four misdemeanor counts and a maximum of seven years for the one felony count involving his use of a computer.
“It’s going to be a tough sentencing decision for the judge,” said Scherr, adding the judge has the option of sentencing Labrie to no jail time at all. “What do you do with someone who has had the advantages [Labrie] has had, performed as highly as he has, yet engaged in this conduct and lied to the jury about it?”
Rikki Klieman, a Boston attorney and CBS News legal analyst who has followed the case closely, said that although the law involving the computer applies to Labrie, “it was not meant for this kind of situation.”
She said the law is generally used to target pedophiles who troll for victims on the Internet, not for teenagers who are convicted of what is commonly referred to as statutory rape. If Labrie had been convicted only of the misdemeanor sexual offenses, he would not have been required to register as a sex offender, she said.
“It seems to me there is a discord here where it might become an issue for appeal,” said Kleiman, noting that registering as a sex offender affects where a person can live and work.
Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center, which is based in Boston, said the computer-related charge should stand and Labrie should be required to register as a sex offender because “this started out and ended as a game.”
Testimony at the trial showed that Labrie engaged in a campus rite called the “senior salute,” in which male seniors sought to arrange trysts with younger students before graduation and boasted about how many they could “slay.”
Bruno said Labrie was involved in “this terrible tradition rooted in sexism and not valuing a young girl as much as he valued the sexual conquest and, to me, that sounds like a sex offender.”
Boston criminal defense attorney Brad Bailey said he believed the jury’s verdict was a split decision that favored the defense.
“Clearly it’s somewhat of a compromise, but obviously the far more serious charges were those on which the jury chose to acquit,” Bailey said. “Owen Labrie is still facing some significant exposure and also jeopardy for his future.”
Klieman said the victim and her family can find a victory because Labrie will be punished, but neither side truly won.
“There are no winners here,” said Kleiman, citing the damage to the reputation of elite St. Paul’s School. “The school loses everything.”Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.