CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — With the family of his accuser looking on, a graduate of an elite New England prep school who was convicted in 2015 of sexually assaulting his female classmate as part of a game of sexual conquest took his bid for a new trial to the New Hampshire Supreme Court on Thursday.
The parents of former St. Paul’s School student Owen Labrie, 22, were also in the courtroom as his lawyer, Jaye Rancourt, appeared to focus the bid for a new trial on what she contends was a lack of evidence to support a charge that Labrie used a computer to lure the victim for sex, a felony requiring him to register as a sex offender.
His appeal came just hours before the state’s attorney general’s office announced an agreement with St. Paul’s related to sexual misconduct allegations going back decades at the school. In lieu of charges, the school entered into an agreement with the state included oversight for up to five years including beefed up training and more robust reporting requirements.
In court Thursday, Rancourt argued that prosecutors failed to show that Labrie’s emails and Facebook messages to Chessy Prout showed he intended to have sex with her. She also argued the statute was never intended to be used in a case like this one.
“They were trying to reach sexual predators and pedophiles who were combing the internet searching out juveniles and deceiving them into meeting them,” Rancourt said, referring to legislators who drafted the statute. “It was certainly never intended to reach seniors in high school and freshmen in high school communicating over the internet. That is how juveniles communicate. That is how kids in school communicate.”
The state is arguing Labrie’s intentions were clear since he was reaching out to Prout as part of a school tradition known as “Senior Salute,” a competition among upperclassmen seeking to have sex with younger students. Chief Justice Robert Lynn appeared to be sympathetic to the argument.
“The problem I have is that the state says that all of these communications were in furtherance of this Senior Salute,” Lynn said. “In fact, the evidence shows, does it not, that a jury could have found that the victim here understood there was going to be a sexual component to this.”
Labrie is also arguing in his bid for a new trial that prosecutors misstated in their closing arguments that semen on Proust’s underwear was Labrie’s. They also are arguing that a new trial should be granted because the trial court did not allow cross-examination of Labrie’s roommate over what they contend was his bias in the case and motive to be untruthful.
Labrie, of Tunbridge, Vermont, was acquitted of raping Prout when she was 15 at St. Paul’s, one of the nation’s top prep schools. But he was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault and child endangerment, along with the computer charge. Although sentenced to a year in jail, he has remained free under curfew while he appeals his convictions.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, as Prout has done.
In a separate case, Labrie is also is appealing his convictions over ineffective counsel.
Last year, a judge denied Labrie a new trial, calling some of his claims of ineffective counsel absurd and almost frivolous. Labrie argued that his defense team erred in several ways, including not challenging the felony computer charge during the trial and not attempting to further damage the credibility of the girl and several of his friends who testified.
Outside court, Labrie and his family left without talking to reporters. Prout was not there, but her parents argued that Labrie should face up to what he had done to their daughter.
“We care about justice being done here,” Alex Prout told reporters. “There were a lot of words in the court today, and I’m not quite sure I understand the arguments.”
Rancourt countered that Labrie has suffered, as well, and that he has maintained his innocence.
“His life has really stalled. He can’t move on with his life,” she said. “Right now, he has to register as a sex offender. That’s not much of a life to move on to. He will keep fighting, and I don’t blame him.”
Since the Labrie case, the school has struggled to come to terms with a pattern of sexual misconduct. It released several reports in the past year that substantiated claims against 20 former staffers of sexual misconduct against students including a former Massachusetts congressman.
Those reports prompted the attorney general’s office to launch its own investigation. And while it said it had evidence to charge the school, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said he felt an agreement would have more impact.
“The school’s primary focus was protecting its reputation, protecting itself rather than protecting the children entrusted to its care,” MacDonald said.
Archibald Cox Jr., the president of the school’s board of trustees, welcomed the agreement and acknowledged that in the past, the school didn’t do enough.
“If you go back in the past, I think you could find instances where the school did put its reputation ahead of the safety of students,” Cox said. “I don’t think that’s true today.”
This story has been updated to correct one instance of the chief justice’s last name to Lynn, instead of Lynne.
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