Inside the Trial of an Alleged Elite New England Prep School Rapist

The New Hampshire courtroom has heard intense and emotional accounts of the night senior Owen Labrie had an allegedly nonconsensual sexual encounter with a 15-year-old girl.

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Aug 21 2015, 8:36pm

The Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. Image via Wiki Commons

For three days in a row, a 16-year old girl has taken the stand at a New Hampshire courthouse to describe a decades-old tradition at Concord's prestigious St. Paul's School that she says resulted in her rape.

"I said, 'No, no, no, keep it up here,'" she told the court of her alleged struggle to keep defendant Owen Labrie, then 18, away from her vagina without coming off as "bitchy" to one of the most "popular boys on campus."

News organizations have agreed to withhold the victim's identity, a standard procedure in sexual assault cases.

The alleged victim sat before a courtroom packed with journalists, her friends and family, and those of the man accused, many of whom had to squeeze past each other to take a seat for hours while the girl was questioned in explicit detail about the events surrounding the alleged assault in May 2014.

Labrie, for the most part, kept his head down.

The scandal at the elite boarding school where notable alums include Secretary of State John Kerry, former FBI Director Robert Muller III, and a half dozen members of Congress has drawn national media interest—especially in light of last year's "Rape on Campus" story in Rolling Stone magazine and an ongoing conversation about sexual assault and how it's covered in the press.

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It should be noted that Labrie wasn't inviting the girl out on a typical date—on this, both sides agree. In language his attorney says was inspired by 19th-century poetry, Labrie was asking the Freshman girl to join him for a "senior salute."

The senior salute is a time-honored sexualized game at St. Paul. The premise is fairly simple: At the end of each school year, graduating seniors try to hook up with the younger students; in some cases, they try to score with as many as possible. Though the specific details of the "senior salute" are germane to St. Paul, in the past, prep schools have faced scrutiny for their on-campus sexual cultures. In 2012, the Daily Beast reported on a California prep school where male students staged a "fantasy slut league" in which participants earned points based on sexual encounters with female students they "drafted."

New England prep schools have been rocked by sex scandals in the past as well. In 2005, five hockey players at the Milton Academy in Massachusetts were expelled after they were found together in the locker room getting blowjobs from a 15-year-old girl, according to the Boston Globe. In 2004, 15 girls at St. Paul were suspended for sexually hazing underclassmen.

St. Paul's admissions staff have said little about the tradition. A statement on the school's website says, "Allegations about our culture are not emblematic of our school or our values, our rules, or the people that represent our student body, alumni, faculty, and staff."

The encounter began, the girl said during direct examination, with an email from Labrie that she called "pretentious."

"The thought of your name in my inbox makes me blush," wrote Labrie, a skinny six-foot soccer player, who had plans to attend Harvard in the fall before the case moved forward. It was just a few days before graduation, and he remarked how "bittersweet" it was that two would soon part ways. The text of his email was shown to the jury and read out loud to those in the court.

But all was not lost, he explained. Though the two had only spoken in passing, he was a friend of her older sister, and they still had some time to get to know each other better.

At first the freshman girl thought Labrie's invitation came with "bad intentions," she said. But when she rebuffed him, and he replied with another flowery email partially in French, she changed her mind, telling jurors she worried she might have been rude. When one of his friends approached her, and told her Labrie wouldn't hurt her, she decided to meet with him.

"What a golden change of heart," Mr. Labrie wrote in response. That descriptor appears to be Labrie's adjective of choice.

Due to "divine intervention," he wrote the alleged victim, Labrie acquired a set of keys to the roof of a campus building with a view. "I want to invite you to come with me and climb these hidden steps."

Some time after the encounter, concerned that other students had learned of their hook-up, he wrote to her again, denying they'd ever had sex. "When a boy actually takes your virginity I hope its golden," he wrote.

The messages between Labrie and his accuser are sometimes confusing. Though he claims they never had sex, hours after the alleged assault, he wrote her he wore a condom.

"Are you on the pill?" he replied, when she asked if he used a rubber.

"Nope."

"Praise Jesus, I put it on like halfway through," he said.

The defense says the girl's messages were just as confusing as the man she's accusing. Her account is complicated by her congeniality and the seemingly friendly notes she wrote to Labrie after their encounter. She responded to one of Labrie's messages by saying, "you're not too bad yourself." Other times she peppered her responses with "haha." It was a move she later explained was a last-ditch effort to protect herself from a potential retribution and convince herself she still had some control.

Labrie denies all ten counts sexual assault of against him. Though he admits he took the accuser to the roof of a campus building and then back to an electrical room inside, his lawyers claim the exchange was consensual, and deny he ever had intercourse with the girl.

Throughout the trial, the alleged victim was asked again and again to recount the events of the evening, and how, when—and just how forcefully—she said "no." She said that despite her pleas, Labrie continued to assault her. She also claims he "chewed" on her breasts and scraped the inside of her vagina, stretching her open with his finger, and then spat on her when she wasn't wet enough to get his penis inside.

The alleged victim said faculty was aware of the tradition on campus.

Lawyers have debated what is generally expected from a "senior salute." Defense attorney J.W. Carney—a prominent Boston lawyer who in 2013 defended notorious mobster James "Whitey" Bulger—argues the underclassmen willingly participate in the tradition while expecting some form of sexual interaction with departing seniors.

The Concord Monitor reported that in an attempt to pay for the high-profile Boston attorney, Labrie crowdsourced funds from students, alumni, and teachers at St. Paul, citing a lack of funds. Earlier this year, the Monitor quoted Labrie's plea as saying, "My family and I are desperately out of time and resources."

In cross-examination, Carney asked the victim if going into the encounter, she told a friend, "I'll probably let him finger me and at most I'll blow him."

On the stand, the girl replied she had not and at most, she thought they'd kiss.

Meanwhile, local Prosecutor Catherine Ruffle said Labrie would talk about "slaying" women who agreed to salute him. She said he called the spring months "Slaypril and Slay." She further claimed he paid tribute to the "Slaymaster," a student athlete and victor of a senior salute in years past whose real name hangs on a campus wall. Ruffle added that Labrie would touch the place where the Slaymaster's name was written every time he walked by.

Allegedly, students would keep track of their senior salute "scores" in marker behind a campus washing machine. And Ruffle said Labrie had his own personal list of targets, with the name of the alleged victim written at the top of his list in in capital letters.

If convicted, Labrie could face up to 20 years in prison. But his fate will ultimately rest on a case of he-says-she-says, or which teenager the jury believes more. The panel of 11 men and three women will have to make their decision based on the alleged victim's testimony, evidence of a vaginal abrasion, and the messages the teens wrote to each other before and after the alleged assault.

Though under New Hampshire law the girl was too young to give legal consent to any form of penetration, legal experts watching the case say that may not be enough to convince every member of the mostly male jury of Labrie's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Proving guilt in date rape cases is not an easy task.

"These jurors want more, they want a confession, they want DNA, they want an eyewitness," says Justin Shepherd, a New Hampshire attorney who's tried rape cases in the state both as a prosecutor and as a defense lawyer.

"It's all a question of how the alleged victim comes across," adds Jonathan Shapiro, a veteran defense attorney.

In his opening statement, Carney argued that since Labrie admits the two made contact that night, DNA evidence may be negligible. And the two were alone that night. How the jury will interpret the alleged victim's testimony, of course, remains to be seen.

When cross-examined by Carney, the alleged victim alternated between defiance and tears. When he read her previous statements to police, which he said contradicted her earlier claims, she stopped him, and insisted he read all of the times she said things such as "like" and "um," too.

"Does 'um' change the meaning of that sentence?" he asked.

"Yes, I was unsure," she replied.

The cross examination only got more contentious. He questioned her about shaving her vagina, and asked if she twirled her hair when she lied.

But when Carney asked why her memory of the alleged assault was so "cloudy," her poised demeanor shattered.

"I was raped!" she sobbed, gasping. "I was violated in so many ways."

Labrie is expected to take the stand next week.

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