N.H. Supreme Court upholds Owen Labrie conviction in sex assault on 15-year old girl
The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the convictions of Owen Labrie, the former St. Paul’s student found guilty in 2015 of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in a room on campus the year before and using a computer to lure her into the encounter.
Labrie’s convictions were affirmed by a 3-0 margin.
Labrie, now 23, was acquitted at trial of raping the victim, Chessy Prout, who was also enrolled at St. Paul’s at the time of the incident, but convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault for having sex with someone below the age of consent and using computer services to entice a minor.
The computer charge was a felony conviction and triggered a requirement that he register as a sex offender . Labrie had communicated electronically with Prout to set up their meeting.
In a statement, Prout’s parents welcomed Tuesday’s ruling.
“The past four years in this process have been long and grueling for our daughter and our family and we sincerely hope the process is nearing an end,” the statement said. “We applaud our daughter’s courage in shattering the silence and persisting through a long and difficult fight for justice. Chessy and our entire family are committed to encouraging other survivors to seek help and support to help them find their path for justice and healing.”
Her parents also thanked the prosecutors who worked the case, noting that they demonstrated “professionalism and courage” in seeking justice for Prout, “long before the widespread support of #MeToo, or the many other cases which have since come to light at St. Paul’s School.”
But Jaye L. Rancourt, a lawyer for Labrie, blasted the ruling in a statement of her own.
“We are deeply disappointed with the decision from the New Hampshire Supreme Court,” Rancourt said. “The ruling demonstrates that the computer felony crime for which Owen was convicted is a seriously flawed law that should be fixed by the NH legislature and that Mr. Labrie did not receive the effective assistance of counsel at trial.”
State Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald’s office, which handled the appeal for the government, declined to comment on the ruling.
Chief Justice Robert J. Lynn, writing for the unanimous supreme court panel, said in the opinion that Labrie’s challenge to the computer-related conviction didn’t pass muster.
“The defendant asserts that if there is no sexual content sent through the messages or explicit mention of sexual conduct in the messages themselves, there is no evidence of the intent to draw the victim into sexual conduct,” Lynn wrote. “This narrow interpretation is not supported by the plain language of the statute or by our case law.”
Lynn wrote that nowhere “in the plain and ordinary meaning of the statute do we discern any requirement that the defendant must send explicit sexual content to the victim or affirmatively ask the victim to engage in sexual penetration.”
Rancourt, however, maintained that Tuesday’s ruling could have far-reaching implications.
“The computer felony law, as now interpreted by the NH Supreme Court, can ensnare any senior in high school who communicates through their phone, tablet or laptop with a freshman in high school and invites them on a date,” Rancourt said.
Rancourt called on state lawmakers to “fix this terribly flawed law.”
The sensational case garnered national headlines and cast an unflattering light on the sexual culture at St. Paul’s, an elite prep school. Prosecutors said Labrie targeted the girl as part of a contest in which he and his friends were competing over sexual conquests.
“If the school had done its job, this never would have happened to Chessy,” said Alex Prout, her father, in a phone interview Tuesday. “Sexual assault is part of the culture, and has been a part of the culture at St. Paul’s for decades, and it’s time for it to stop.”
The school says on its website that it has “a zero-tolerance policy for conduct that is at odds with our commitment to providing a safe and welcoming environment for everyone in our community. We have undertaken many important initiatives to ensure the safety, health, and wellness of every member of the School community.”
The school also maintains that it has “moved quickly and thoughtfully to lead what we believe is a much-needed and urgent national conversation around what has long been a difficult, but very important, topic for parents, students, and educators.”
The school had no immediate comment beyond its web posting.
Labrie’s separate appeal seeking a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel is still pending, with oral arguments scheduled for Nov. 28.
“It is a shame that Owen will suffer the consequences of his trial counsel’s failure to object to and raise challenges to evidence at trial,” Rancourt said. “I am saddened by this decision and remain hopeful that the NH Supreme Court will remedy this miscarriage of justice in the upcoming appeal specifically addressing his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Prout has gone public with her ordeal and published a searing memoir, written with Boston Globe reporter Jenn Abelson, entitled “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope.”
Labrie was sentenced to a year in jail but has remained free during the appeal. He spent about two months in jail in 2016 for violating the terms of his bail. Rancourt said Tuesday that Labrie has 10 days to formally ask the supreme court to reconsider Tuesday’s ruling.
“We have not determined yet if we will do so,” Rancourt said. “I anticipate that Owen will remain free on bond pending that deadline.”