CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A graduate of an elite New Hampshire prep school convicted of using a computer to lure an underage student for sex — requiring him to register as a sex offender for life — is asking for a new trial.
In 2015, Owen Labrie, of Tunbridge, Vermont, was acquitted of raping a 15-year-old classmate a year earlier as part of “Senior Salute,” a game of sexual conquest, at St. Paul’s School in Concord. But he was found guilty of the felony computer charge and several misdemeanor counts of sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. He was sentenced to a year in jail.
Now 21, he is out on appeal but still follows a strict curfew requiring him to be at home between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.
“He is committed to pursuing his studies and justice in his case,” his current lawyer, Robin Melone, said in a statement Friday.
Melone said his trial lawyers were ineffective because they failed to challenge the computer charge and question the girl further, among other arguments.
“The question now is whether those mistakes were so significant that he was deprived the quality of representation every defendant is entitled to,” Melone said.
Prosecutors say the defense hasn’t proved its case, and they’ve asked a judge to rule on a number of claims before a four-day hearing is scheduled to start Tuesday.
If the judge orders a new trial, Labrie could face the charges he was convicted of, but not the ones he was acquitted of. It is also possible the prosecution could bring additional charges or alternative theories that were not presented previously.
After Labrie was convicted, his lead trial lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr. — who once defended Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger — asked the judge to set aside the guilty verdict on the computer charge. In court documents, Carney said the law establishing that charge was part of a nationwide effort to prosecute people who “would troll the internet, trying to entrap children into committing sexual acts with them,” not two teenagers who were flirting with each other through email and Facebook.
Carney said he couldn’t have known that his argument had merit until after the jury returned not-guilty verdicts on the rape charges. The judge disagreed with his arguments and found his request untimely. Melone said his late challenge is an example of ineffective counsel.
The law targets a person who “knowingly utilizes a computer on-line service, internet service, or local bulletin board service” to lure a child for sex. Melone said the charge against Labrie is unsupported because emails he exchanged with the student never left the school’s intranet server, which is not an online or internet service.
In her response, prosecutor Catherine Ruffle said Melone’s interpretation is without merit. She said the law was enacted in 1998, at the start of wider public use and acceptance of internet and online services as a mode of communication, and it’s unreasonable to think intranet communications were exempt.
Carney wrote that he isn’t knowledgeable about internet communications: “I did not hire an expert to investigate this subject because it never occurred to me that it was an issue to explore.”
Melone also argued that the defense didn’t investigate the girl’s social media accounts and statements she made to her dorm adviser, or further question her testimony.
Carney wrote that “there is no template” for handling such a witness, saying he needed to raise serious concerns for the jury about her credibility, “but not come across as a bully and engender sympathy for her.” He also said he was careful on cross-examination not to open the doors for the prosecution to introduce evidence.
Last summer, the girl, Chessy Prout, went public, saying she’s no longer ashamed or afraid and hopes to be a voice for others. The Associated Press typically does not identify victims of sexual assault unless they come forward publicly.
Her parents have since sued St. Paul’s, arguing it should have done more to protect her. The school has denied it could have prevented the assault; both sides indicated they are open to mediation.
Prout and her family are expected to attend the hearing.
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