August 28, 2015 / 6:08 PM / 4 years ago

Former New Hampshire prep school student not guilty of rape

CONCORD, N.H. (Reuters) - A former student of an elite New Hampshire prep school was found not guilty on Friday of raping a 15-year-old girl days before graduation last year in a case that cast a harsh spotlight on the school’s culture.

A sign marks the entrance to St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, August 20, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Owen Labrie, 19, was found not guilty of three felony counts of sexually assaulting a fellow student at St. Paul’s School in Concord. The jury found him guilty of lesser misdemeanor counts of having sex with a person under the age of consent, as well as a felony count of using online communications to seduce a minor.

Labrie closed his eyes and began to sob as the first verdict, finding him guilty of computer-related seduction, was read but regained his composure as the jury forewoman read out the three not guilty verdicts. His lawyer, J.W. Carney, patted his back to soothe him.

He could face a sentence of up to 11 years in prison for the charges he was found guilty of. The felony sex assault counts had carried a potential sentence of as much as 20 years in prison.

“Owen’s future is forever changed,” said Carney, a prominent Boston defense attorney whose clients have included mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. “A conviction like this is like a brand.”

He added that he believed prosecutors had “overreached” in charging Labrie under the computer-related seduction law, which he said was passed with online sexual predators in mind, and has specific language enhancing penalties for victims under the age of 13.

Central to the trial was the “senior salute,” a longstanding tradition among St. Paul’s students that involved graduating students inviting underclassmen to get together, often for sexual purposes.

The accuser, who spent more than two days on the stand, acknowledged agreeing to Labrie’s invitation, but said she expected to kiss him and not go much further. She said Labrie aggressively kept pushing her until she was “frozen” in fear and unable to resist.

“Today, a measure of justice has been served for victims of sexual violence,” the girl’s family said in a statement. “Owen Labrie was held accountable in some way by a jury of his peers for the crimes he committed against our daughter.”

Carney had argued that Labrie and the teen, whose sister was a senior at the school, had a mutually flirtatious relationship and went on to have a consensual encounter that stopped short of intercourse.

A close friend of the accuser testified that the teen told her that she was willing to engage in certain sex acts short of intercourse. The accuser denied having said it.

The accuser, Carney said, “had to make a decision whether it would be her reputation that would go into the toilet, or Owen’s and she took the easier choice.”

‘TOXIC CULTURE’

The victim’s family also blamed the nearly 160-year-old school for failing to prevent the incident.

“We still feel betrayed that St. Paul’s School allowed and fostered a toxic culture that left our daughter and other students at risk to sexual violence,” they said.

St. Paul’s, whose alumni include powerful U.S. business and political leaders such as Secretary of State John Kerry, said on Friday that school leaders had only learned of the “senior salute” practice in 2013, and that it did not accurately reflect its culture.

“The behavior was never condoned by the school and we took action when it surfaced,” said the school’s rector, Michael Hirschfeld, and the president of its board of trustees, James Waterbury, in an open letter to students, parents and alumni.

Defense attorneys had sought to portray Labrie, of Tunbridge, Vermont, as a hardworking and ambitious student, who unlike many of the students at the prestigious boarding school did not come from a privileged background and was able to attend only because he had earned a scholarship to do so.

Labrie, who will have to register as a sex offender, was released on $15,000 bail until an October sentencing hearing.

County prosecutor Catherine Ruffle said she regarded the outcome as a victory.

“We hope this sends a message to future victims to come forward,” she said.

Reporting by Ted Siefer; Editing by Scott Malone and Richard Chang

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