The rape trial that rocked a prestigious New Hampshire prep school is over as a split verdict was revealed on Friday afternoon, Aug. 28, 2015 that left the defendant Owen Labrie, 19 guilty of five of the nine charges brought against him including one felony, but acquitted of the most serious felony rape charges. Still the former St. Paul School student accused of raping a 15-year-old freshman in May 2014 when he was an 18-year-old senior could face up to 11 years in prison and will forever have to register as a sexual offender.
On Friday afternoon, 12 jurors; 9 men and three women rendered their verdict after deliberation for only seven and a half hours. Labrie, a former scholarship student from Tunbridge, Vt. was in tears as the verdicts were being read. Among the charges he was found guilty of include a “felony of using a computer to lure a minor,” a misdemeanor charge of “endangering the welfare of a child,” and “three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault.” Labrie faces up to 7 years for the felony conviction and one year for each misdemeanor conviction he was found guilty of.
The major news story seems to be that Labrie was acquitted of the major felony rape charges “aggravated felonious sexual assault” and misdemeanor assault against him, but the fact that he was found guilty of five charges has been largely ignored. The fact that Labrie was found guilty at all will go a long way to stop the culture of sex and rape so prevalent in schools these days, and especially among the privileged where the victim usually ends up suffering in silence. The prosecution viewed the verdict as a victory as did the victim’s family; however, the defendant’s lawyer considers it a failure on the prosecution’s part because his client was not found guilty of the felony rape charges.
Both the victim, who at only 16 now remains unnamed by the media to protect her, and defendant Labrie testified as to the events with predictably different accounts. Labrie was the only witness for his defense. In her emotional testimony the victim loudly while crying stated, “I was raped! I was violated in so many ways” when the defense implied it was consensual.
Labrie countered in his own testimony this past week denying he had sex with the victim, but said any of their sexual activity was mutual. Labrie testified, “It wouldn’t have been a good move to have sex with this girl.” Although several of his friends testified for the prosecution claiming Labrie bragged about “scoring” having sex with the girl. Labrie later testified he had had lied at the time. DNA evidence however, implies they did have sexual intercourse, and her bruises show force.
At the center of the controversy is the elite private prep school’s controversial tradition of the “senior salute,” that has essentially become a “game of sexual conquest” between seniors prying on freshman. Prosecutor Catherine Ruffle described it as allowing seniors “to be with someone that they might have wanted to be with throughout” high school, usually kissing, but “it might include a little bit more.” The tradition however, had descended into a competition. Labrie was accused of forcing himself onto the girl at the school’s tower in the Concord, New Hampshire campus.
The victim’s family issued a statement after the verdict focusing on the justice, “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.
The statement also emphasized the blame the school also shoulders, “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.” The family said it was “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.”
The school responded with their own open letter written by rector Michael Hirschfeld, and the president of its board of trustees, James Waterbury to their community about the verdict acknowledging the “young woman who has suffered through this nightmare.” The letter also emphasized policy changes to prevent such behavior promising, “it remains our responsibility to make our School the safest place possible.”
The letter also addressed the activity at the heart of the trial the senior salute and ensuring it would not continue; “Many terms, including “senior salute” and “score” that are part of the student vernacular, have been discussed as part of the trial… There is no place for inappropriate and hurtful behavior that disrespects any member of our School. Conduct that is damaging to the fabric of our community and inconsistent with our values has never been – and will not be – tolerated.”
J.W. Carney, the defendant’s lawyer remarked after the verdict, “Owen’s future is forever changed. A conviction like this is like a brand.” Meanwhile, the prosecutor Catherine Ruffle expressed, “We hope this sends a message to future victims to come forward.” Labrie will be sentenced at a hearing on Oct. 29, his bail was set at $15,000 and he has to adhere to a 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew.