CONCORD, New Hampshire — Jurors began deliberations Thursday in the trial of a New England prep school graduate accused of rape, weighing charges in a case that has drawn attention to campus culture at one of the country’s most elite high schools.
After meeting Thursday afternoon, jurors went home for the evening. Deliberations are set to resume on Friday morning.
Nineteen-year-old Owen Labrie is accused of raping a 15-year-old freshman girl two days before he graduated from the St. Paul’s School here in Concord last year.
Labrie faces nine charges in all, the most grave of which are three felony sexual assault charges, each carrying a penalty of up to twenty years in prison.
Jurors were told Thursday that in order to find Labrie guilty of the felony sexual assault charges, they need to find that Labrie violated the girl, that she did not freely consent, and that he committed the act knowingly.
In one of the three felony charges, jurors must also find that he surprised her with the act, before giving her a chance to escape.
Labrie has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
Prosecutors say that when Labrie was an 18-year-old senior at St. Paul’s, he sexually assaulted the girl as part of a school tradition called "Senior Salute" where graduating seniors seek sexual conquests with younger students. In a police interview last summer, Labrie acknowledged the tradition, but said his meeting was not an instance of a "Senior Salute."
Labrie also acknowledged having consensual sexual contact with the girl, but he testified Wednesday that he did not have sex with the girl. Labrie told jurors that the two traded kisses and removed some clothing, and that at one point he put on a condom. But, he told jurors, he had second thoughts and did not follow through with the act.
Speaking to jurors this morning, defense attorney J.W. Carney attacked the credibility of the accuser in the case, saying the girl, now 16 years old, was a willing participant that night.
Carney drew attention to testimony from the roommate of the girl, who told police that the girl had said before her meeting with Labrie that she would allow certain sexual acts.
Pressed last week about the police interview with the roommate, the girl said she could not recall making those remarks.
“If you conclude that she was not being truthful with you, then I submit it taints her entire testimony, “ Carney told jurors on Thursday.
During testimony last week, the girl described Labrie’s invitation over e-mail to take in a view of the campus from the roof of a math and sciences building. The girl said she initially declined the invitation but then accepted it when a friend of Labrie’s vouched for him. Speaking at times through tears, she described being led to an attic area that night, where she said the two began kissing and removing clothing. The girl says Labrie then became aggressive, biting her chest, and forcing himself on her.
The girl acknowledged lifting her hips to help him remove her shorts, but she says after that she became “frozen” with fear. She says she said ‘no’ three times but did not kick or scream. She went on to tell jurors that Labrie did in fact have intercourse with her, and that, at one point before carrying out the act, he criticized her for being a “tease.”
Asked by a prosecutor last week about her expectations of the meeting, the girl said she thought he would try to kiss her.
"I thought if anything he might try to kiss me,” the girl said. "I thought I might get to see a cool place, and maybe we'll kiss. But that's all."
Carney, the defense attorney, asked jurors on Thursday to use “common sense,” saying the girl’s statements to friends and messages with the accuser show she was a willing participant.
According to testimony from both the accuser and the defendant, Labrie sent the girl a message on the night of the incident calling her an “angel.” The girl replied: “You’re quite an angel yourself, but would you mind keeping the events of this evening to yourself for now?”
Asked by a prosecutor last week why she had called Labrie an angel, the girl said she was trying not to upset him. “It was almost like I was sticking to the script that he was offering,” she said.
But Carney told jurors Thursday the messages showed the encounter was consensual, and said the girl fabricated a story of assault in order to insulate herself against gossip about a meeting she had willingly participated in.
“She had to make a decision whether it would be her reputation that would go into the toilet, or Owen’s. She took the easier choice,” Carney said.
Addressing jurors immediately afterward, the prosecution defended the girl’s credibility, asking why she would have undergone the ordeal that followed, including sitting for an intrusive physical examination at Concord Hospital.
"She was telling you what actually happened with painful honesty,” said Assistant Merrimack County prosecutor Joseph Cherniske. "What kid would go through all of this unless it was 100% true?”
Cherniske said that Labrie took advantage of the girl’s youth and vulnerability, deliberately bringing her to the secluded attic in order to carry out the alleged assault.
Cherniske later brought attention to messages Labrie exchanged with a friend, which left the friend believing he had sex with the girl.
In one exchange, Labrie told a friend he “pulled every trick in the book” to convince her.
During testimony Wednesday, Labrie told the court he had not been truthful with that friend or others, and insisted he never had sex with the girl. Labrie told the court he left the impression he had sex with her because he wanted to "boast."
But Cherniske told jurors Thursday the messages show that Labrie did carry out the act.
"You only need tricks if someone says no,” Cherniske said. "You only need tricks if a 15-year-old girl won’t take off her clothes."
Labrie was arrested and charged last summer with several counts of felony sex assault, misdemeanor sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and using a computer to solicit or lure a child under the age of 16. This week, the judge in the case dropped one of the two misdemeanor charges of endangering the welfare of a child, leaving nine charges remaining in all against Labrie.
Labrie has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the three felony sexual assault counts.
The trial has put unwelcome attention on St. Paul’s, which boasts a roster of alumni that includes Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as members of congress, and, according to its website, thirteen U.S. ambassadors, a Nobel Prize winner, and three Pulitzer Prize winners.
The school rector, Mike Hirschfeld, told students in a letter last summer that participating in games involving sexual solicitation would be grounds for expulsion, and the school has said in a statement that allegations about the culture at St. Paul's "are are not emblematic of our School or our values, our rules, or the people who represent our student body, alumni, faculty, and staff.”
On Thursday, Labrie’s attorney took aim at the school, telling jurors that St. Paul’s had failed its students by creating a permissive attitude about the senior salute tradition.
"This isn’t the fault of the culture at St. Paul’s” Cherniske, the prosecutor, later said. "This is the defendant who manipulated that culture to get what he wanted."