After six days of evidence heard from 16 witnesses in the St. Paul’s School rape trial, the jury has acquitted 19-year-old Owen Labrie of three felony charges of sexually assaulting a now 16-year-old fellow former student at the New Hampshire prep school.
The jury, comprised of nine men and three women, deliberated for eight hours before arriving at a verdict, which found Labrie guilty on three misdemeanor counts of sexual assault.
He was also convicted of endangering a child, a misdemeanor, and a felony charge of using a computer to entice a minor.
The prosecution said Labrie would be forced to register as a Level II sex offender for life because of the computer charge, which also carries a prison sentence of up to seven years. He faces an additional four years behind bars for the misdemeanor charges.
A judge forced Labrie to surrender his passport, and set his bail at $15,000 until he is sentenced on October 29.
St. Paul’s issued a statement following the verdict on Friday commending “the remarkable moral courage and strength demonstrated by the young woman who has suffered through this nightmare.”
In closing arguments Thursday morning, both the prosecution and the defense had pleaded to the jury’s common sense.
The prosecutor asked why the defendant would lie to her parents, her friends, hospital nurses, and the police: “What kid would go through with all of this unless it’s 100 percent true?”
Labrie’s attorney appealed to jurors’ understanding that teenage boys exaggerate their sexual experiences to their peers, which would explain why Labrie lied to his friends when he said he had sex with the girl.
“He’s not a saint,” Labrie’s attorney J.W. Carney told the court. “He’s a teenager, and I submit he told the truth.” (Labrie had maintained from the beginning that they never had intercourse.)
But the jury was not convinced of either argument.
They determined that Labrie had in fact penetrated the girl with his fingers and his penis, despite his improbable claim of “divine intervention” moments after he put a condom on.
But the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their sexual encounter was nonconsensual.
The girl willingly accepted Labrie’s “Senior Salute,” a tradition at St. Paul’s that involves upperclassmen “scoring” with underclassmen, though several former and current St. Paul’s students testified that scoring doesn’t necessarily translate to sex.
The girl testified that she did not resist when Labrie kissed her in a secluded room on campus, but that she resisted when he tried to remove her underwear, saying “no, no, no, keep it up here.”
She claimed Labrie didn’t listen and instead penetrated her with his fingers, “scraping” the inside of her body.
She said she “froze” with fear when he began to perform oral sex, and that he put on a condom and penetrated her with his penis, using his saliva as lubricant.
Labrie’s DNA was found on her underwear, which likely factored into at least one of the misdemeanor sexual assault convictions. Semen was also found on her underpants, but it couldn’t be traced to Labrie.
The trial has reinvigorated a national debate about so-called rape culture, particularly on school and college campuses, and has shone a light on the difficulty of trying sexual assault cases that ultimately boil down to he-said, she-said arguments.
Without sufficient physical evidence, including signs of injury or force, the case rested largely on the accuser’s credibility.
New Hampshire is among a minority of states that does not require showing forcible resistance to prove rape.
As of 1995, the state determined that a person is guilty of sexual assault if “the victim indicates by speech or conduct that there is not freely given consent.”
“What’s most interesting about this case is that it would not have been brought ten years ago, and not because of any changes in law but because of changes in attitude,” Nancy Gertner, a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School and a retired judge, told The Daily Beast.
Attitudes have changed so dramatically, and appropriately so, that we are now familiar with the idea that a woman can be “frozen in fear” when she is raped or moments before, and therefore doesn’t object loudly and clearly, if at all. (In this particular case, the girl claimed she was “frozen,” though she also claimed she said “no” during their encounter.)
We also now know that inconsistent stories can result from trauma.
“These things are part of our lexicon now, but they don’t necessarily mean that rape occurred,” said Gertner, who spent her early legal career as a woman’s rights lawyer advocating for the reform of rape laws in the 1980s. “There’s an explanation for telling inconsistent stories. One explanation is trauma, another is that you’re not telling the truth.”
Abbe Smith, a Georgetown law professor and director of the school’s Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic, pointed out that the man—particularly a sexually inexperienced teenager—may not be able to tell when a woman is “frozen in fear.”
She added that she doesn’t believe this gives men and boys carte blanche to be oblivious during sex.
For the first time since 1962, the rape statute offered as a model for state legislatures and courts—the so-called Model Penal Code—is being revised by the American Law Institute, a prestigious and influential body of judges, practitioners, and scholars.
Smith is an adviser to the ALI’s project on sexual assault and said the notion of being “frozen in fear” had come up in a recent meeting.
“I don’t think we should necessarily infer that a silent girl or woman is a fearful girl or woman,” she said, adding that there are plenty of other reasons why a woman might be quiet, shy, or stiff during sex. “That cannot be the basis of a criminal conviction.”
The ALI is also proposing laws based on affirmative consent, including a misdemeanor called “Nonconsensual Penetration.”
Smith is against resistance requirement laws, but she worries that the direction of sexual assault laws is going to shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused.
If the accused has to overcome a presumption of guilt, then there will be more pleas and fewer trials, Smith said.
In the St. Paul’s case, Labrie’s guilt or innocence on felonious charges hinged on the equivocal question of consent.
“It’s an interesting case as a cultural moment because both the accuser and the defendant are so young,” said Smith. “One of the problems with our criminal justice system is that the criminal law is a very blunt instrument, and it feels especially blunt when we’re talking about a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy.”
Smith believes that the defense’s tactic of shifting blame to the school’s sexual culture may have factored into the jury acquitting Labrie on felony charges.
In his closing arguments, Labrie’s attorney claimed that his client and the girl were both victims of the “Senior Salute” tradition.
“The combination of adolescence and sexuality is sometimes toxic when peer pressure is added to the mix,” Smith said. “You can call the Labrie a perpetrator and the girl a victim, but in my mind it’s more complicated than that.”