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Defense rests its case in St. Paul's rape trial after defendant testifies

Owen Labrie took the stand Wednesday to tell his side of the story in a case that has drawn attention to one of the country’s most prestigious boarding schools.
Former St. Paul's School student Owen Labrie raises his hand as he is sworn-in prior to testifying in his trial at Merrimack Superior Court in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. (Photo by Charles Krupa/AP)
Former St. Paul's School student Owen Labrie raises his hand as he is sworn-in prior to testifying in his trial at Merrimack Superior Court in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.

CONCORD, New Hampshire — Jurors could soon begin deliberations in the trial of a New England prep school graduate accused of rape, as the defense rested its case Wednesday after calling only one witness: the defendant, 19-year-old Owen Labrie.

The teenager told his side of the story during a day of testimony in a case that is shining a spotlight on sexual mores among teens, and drawing attention to life at one of the country’s most prestigious boarding schools.

Labrie walked step-by-step through his account of what happened, saying that although he put on a condom at one point, he had second thoughts and stopped short of having intercourse.

RELATED: Prosecution rests its case in St. Paul’s rape trial

Later, facing the prosecution, he answered questions about why he had left friends believing he had sex with the girl, saying he wanted to boast about the time spent with her, and saying that he lied about what occurred between them.

Closing arguments are expected to occur Thursday. Afterward, the judge will give jurors instructions before deliberations begin.

Labrie is accused of raping a then 15-year-old freshman girl in an attic of an academic building two days before graduating from St. Paul’s School last year. The trial has shaken this small community and resulted in days of wrenching and often uncomfortable testimony.

Prosecutors said that when Labrie was an 18-year-old senior at St. Paul’s here in Concord, he sexually assaulted the girl as part of a school tradition called the “senior salute,” in which graduating seniors sought 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 told police he had sexual contact with the girl, but it was consensual and did not involve intercourse.

Testifying last week, the girl said 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 lead prosecutor Catherine Ruffle what happened afterward, the accuser said, "he came back over to me, kissed me and said, 'Well, that was fun,' or something like that," adding that she was so shocked by the events that she couldn't immediately respond. According to Ruffle, “She tried to say no, tried to use her physical conduct to let him know this was not OK.”

“At one point I was in so much pain that I jerked backwards,” the girl said last Wednesday, telling the court that she said "no," but did not kick or scream because she was afraid of offending the older boy.

On Wednesday, Labrie described a different series of events, telling the court that both he and the girl were laughing and giggling as they mutually traded kisses.

“I guess the whole night was really back and forth. I would kiss her and she would kiss me,” Labrie said at one point.

RELATED: At prep school rape trial, defendant faces uphill battle in taking the stand

Labrie told the court in detail about his rendezvous with the freshman girl that night, meeting her on campus and walking with her to a math and science building, at one point ducking as they saw a campus security car and a car he said belonged to parents of a student. The two then entered the building from opposite sides and climbed the stairs to the roof, where Labrie said they took in a nighttime view of campus, which was buzzing with activity related to graduation weekend.

“I thought it was a really pretty view and I wanted to share it with her,” Labrie told the court, recalling that he thought the girl was having “a great time” as she took in the sight of the school dorms and chapel aglow with light.

“She was laughing, she said she was excited,” he said. 

Labrie said the two stood on the roof for five to ten minutes, trying to "soak it all in,” before they went inside an attic area full of buzzing HVAC machines and old science equipment. The two explored the area, he said, each pulling the other at one point by the hand.

At some point, Labrie said, the two began kissing and then removed their sweatshirts because it was hot in the attic. Labrie told the court he then spread a blanket on the floor that he had brought inside a backpack, and the girl helped him straighten the blanket's corners against the floor. 

Asked by defense attorney J.W. Carney if the girl seemed fearful, Labrie said no. “We were chatting the way we did all year,” Labrie said, referring to early testimony he gave that the two had a passing, social relationship.

According to Labrie, the two lay down on the blanket, where they eventually removed their shirts. Sometime later, Labrie said, he removed his shorts and then the girl lifted her hips so that he could remove hers.

“Did she grimace?” asked Carney, the defense attorney.

“No,” Labrie said.

Under questioning, Labrie acknowledged that he tugged on the waist band of the girl’s underwear, but he said he never tried to remove the garment. “She’d roll over, we’d kiss more,” Labrie said, telling the court that passions had “escalated.” 

RELATED: St. Paul’s School classmates testify at rape trial

"I thought at one point, 'We’re going to have sex,'” Labrie said. He added he went into his shorts, where he found his wallet and dug out a condom. Labrie said he put the condom on, but quickly began having second thoughts.

"I thought to myself, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this,’” Labrie told the court. "It had taken me a second to get to my shorts, come back, and I think by that point I had cooled off a little bit." Labrie said things then slowed between the two, and that he then proposed they check the time, and they noted it was almost 10 p.m., the time of a campus a-cappella concert. 

“It wouldn’t have been a good move to have sex with this girl,” Labrie continued, adding that intercourse would have been rushed, and that graduation activities on campus made it the wrong time. “I might not have seen her again over the weekend,” Labrie said. “It wouldn't have been a good choice for me to make."

Labrie said the two made their way out of the building. He caught the end of the concert, he told the court and, when he returned to his dorm, younger students inquired about a rumor that he had sex with the girl.

"I thought to myself, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this.' ... I think by that point I had cooled off a little bit."'

Under cross examination, Labrie faced questions from a prosecutor about conversations with those friends, both in person and over text, which left the impression he had sex with the girl. “You told him you had sex,” Assistant Merrimack County Prosecutor Joseph Cherniske said, referring to one exchange of messages that began with the friend asking how Labrie had managed to convince the girl to have intercourse.

“Not in those words,” Labrie said. “But yes, I did tell him more or less that was the case.”

In that same exchange, Labrie told the friend he “pulled every trick in the book” to convince the girl. But on Wednesday, Labrie told the court he had not been truthful with that friend or others, and insisted he never had sex with the girl.

“It’s a lie?” the prosecutor asked, referring to the text messages.

“Yes, it’s a lie,” Labrie told the court. “I wanted to boast and I lied.”

Labrie also told the court Wednesday that he had deleted this exchange with his friend from his own Facebook account, cleaning out a total of 119 messages on the advice of his mother in the hours after his police interview last summer.

RELATED: Accuser in St. Paul's rape trial gives emotional testimony

Labrie said his mother advised him to erase messages that were “really juvenile” and to deactivate his account.

Throughout his testimony, Labrie spoke often of his mother, referring to her as “momma” and describing how she hugged him in the lobby of the Concord Police building after he finished his interview with detectives. He told the court his parents divorced when he was two and that he grew up living in Vermont with his mother.

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. The judge in the case dropped one of the two misdemeanor charges of endangering the welfare of a child, leaving nine charges remaining. Labrie has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

According to New Hampshire code, he faces up to 20 years in prison on each of his three felony sexual assault counts.

Before court resumed Wednesday, a New Hampshire victim’s advocacy group addressed reporters and distributed a release saying there has been too much focus in the trial on the behavior of the girl instead of the actions of Labrie. The release went on to say that it is not uncommon for sexual assault victims to freeze during the incident.

“We know from neuroscientists and trauma experts that in times of extreme stress, and particularly when a person feels that they are in danger, the brain’s fear response takes over,” the group, the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said in its statement.

Testifying last week, the girl said she felt “frozen” during the encounter. “I felt so scared,” the girl told the court. “I had no idea what was going on. I had never been put in a situation like that.”

RELATED: Teen accuser recounts night of alleged assault at St. Paul's School

The girl fled the courtroom in tears at one point Wednesday, as Labrie discussed messages he exchanged with her about their encounter.

Labrie’s lawyer told the court Wednesday that his client’s plans for the future are pending the outcome at trial. Before his arrest, Labrie had been accepted to Harvard with a full scholarship. He planned to join the ministry after Harvard, he said Wednesday.

 As he first took the stand, Labrie told the court that he had been a straight-A student at St. Paul’s, graduating summa cum laude and receiving an award for his character and school service. Labrie said he received a letter from the school after this arrest, telling him the school had rescinded the award.

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, 13 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 has said in a statement that allegations about the culture at St. Paul’s “are not emblematic of our School or our values, our rules, or the people who represent our student body, alumni, faculty, and staff.”

After court adjourned Monday, Labrie stood briefly and quietly by his attorney’s side as J.W. Carney told reporters that Labrie had answered questions truthfully and completely.

“I could not be more pleased that the jury saw the real Owen Labrie,” Carney said, before Labrie turned to leave.