CONCORD, N.H. — The prep school graduate accused of raping a younger student at the elite St. Paul’s School dropped his head and sobbed for the first time since the start of his trial: He had been found not guilty on Friday of felony sexual assault charges, but was convicted of having sex with a girl who was below the age of consent.
The accuser sat in the front row, tightly flanked by her family, her father’s hand on her head, her mother’s arm around her shoulders. She cried, too, in the main hall of the drab courthouse here, before stepping out the back door.
So ended the trial of Owen Labrie, 19, and with it a rare exploration of the backslapping sexual culture among some students at one of the nation’s most exclusive boarding schools. Over nearly two weeks, jurors listened to prosecutors and defense lawyers ask witnesses about a custom called the “senior salute,” in which older students at St. Paul’s propositioned younger classmates for a last-chance encounter before graduation.
But at its core, the case was about an intimate encounter last year between a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old acquaintance, and whether she consented as it escalated.
The girl spent more time on the stand than Mr. Labrie. She said that he had bitten her and that he had scraped inside her vagina. She said she had told him “no” more than once.
Mr. Labrie said the encounter had been consensual. He said it stopped well short of sex.
And after about seven hours of deliberations over two days, the jury appeared to dismiss Mr. Labrie’s insistence that he had not penetrated the girl in any way, but found that the state had not proved that what happened was against the girl’s expressed wishes.
The nine men and three women rejected the more serious accusations of aggravated sexual assault, as well as a misdemeanor assault charge of biting the girl’s chest, but convicted Mr. Labrie of three misdemeanors related to the girl’s age and involving penetration with his penis, mouth and finger. He was also convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor, and a felony charge involving use of a computer to lure a minor.
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It seemed, one expert said, to be a compromise among the jurors.
“When there’s a compromise verdict, I think you’re always searching for reasons why it happened,” said Jennifer Long, a former assistant district attorney who trains lawyers on the prosecution of sexual violence. “It’s natural to wonder, is that fully understood or accepted by the jury or a community as a whole — the idea of consent, that it can be withdrawn, that consent to one sexual activity doesn’t mean consent to anything and everything?”
Even without a conviction on the most serious charges, Mr. Labrie now faces up to seven years in prison on the conviction related to computer use, and a year on each of the misdemeanor convictions.
Prosecutors said Mr. Labrie would also have to register as a sex offender because of the computer-related charge, though legal experts said he could eventually petition for removal. His lawyer, J. W. Carney Jr., dismissed that conviction as a misapplication of a law intended to focus not on teenagers’ emails but rather on older adults luring minors.
“It’s overreaching,” he said.
What was not disputed was that on May 30, 2014, the pair met for a so-called senior salute. They went to the roof of a tall building to take in a view of the campus, and then to a machine room below, where they began to kiss.
To make its case that no rape occurred, and that there was consent for what did happen, the defense called a sole witness: Mr. Labrie, the soccer captain and straight-A student. In court, he denied penetrating the girl in any way. He told the jury that the two had kissed and rubbed together in their underwear and that he had put on a condom, thinking he and the girl were about to have sex. But after a moment of reflection, he said, he decided not to.
“He’s not a saint,” Mr. Carney said in his closing argument on Thursday. “He’s a teenager. And I submit he told the truth.”
The state called 16 witnesses, including a handful of Mr. Labrie’s friends, who read crude, sexualized messages Mr. Labrie had written, and who said that he had claimed to have had sex with the girl; the medical professionals who had examined the accuser; and forensic experts.
Still, it was the girl’s graphic and emotional testimony, in which she told the jury that she had said “no” more than once but then felt frozen, that opened the trial and dominated the case.
What she described as rape (“I was violated so many ways,” she said), Mr. Labrie described as a giggly tryst (“I thought she was having a great time,” he said).
St. Paul’s School was a character in the trial, too, depicted by both sides as an educational haven with a troubling culture of sex, entitlement and misogyny, although some alumni have said they do not recognize the picture painted in court.
Repeatedly, the prosecution and defense pressed witnesses for details on the senior salute, asking the students who took the stand to define it and the words they used — like “score,” “slay” and “pork” — in emails that described dating and hooking up.
“St. Paul’s School failed the children with their attitude toward the senior salute,” Mr. Carney said. He described the school as a place where boys, living away from home under the watch of an elite old institution, felt pressure to act like “studs.”
The prosecution said the onus was on Mr. Labrie, not the school. “This isn’t the fault of the culture that’s at St. Paul’s,” Joseph Cherniske, an assistant county attorney, said in his closing argument. “It was the defendant who manipulated that culture.”
In a statement after the verdict, St. Paul’s said that “the topics raised by the trial have been an area of focus for the school for some time,” and that the senior salute, the culture of scoring and other issues “will continue to be addressed.”
But missing from the trial, some experts said, was a broad discussion about the meaning of consent. There was no testimony about the definition of consent or about how victims of rape and the accompanying trauma typically behave: A possible government witness prepared to speak on those matters was stricken from the list after a defense motion.
It was a case with conflicting stories and, as is common in such cases, a focus on the credibility of the female accuser.
Mr. Carney made much of the girl’s expectations, recalling that a friend of hers said she had considered the possibility of oral sex with Mr. Labrie.
Mr. Cherniske said that, whatever her expectations, the girl had a right to change her mind.
But the jury ultimately decided either that they did not believe her, or that there was a reasonable doubt about whether she had communicated her denial of consent to Mr. Labrie.
In a statement, her family said a measure of justice had been served, but had strong words for the school and the boys there.
“We continue to feel anger and disappointment,” they said, “for the lack of character and integrity that the young men of St. Paul’s School showed, laughing and joking with Owen Labrie at graduation about ‘slaying’ our daughter.”
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