My Surreal Train Ride with One of New England's Most Notorious Sex Offenders
I watched Owen Labrie get convicted of statutory rape in the St. Paul's prep school trial in New Hampshire last summer. Then I bumped into him on the train.
Owen Labrie at trial last summer. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, Pool, File)
On Monday afternoon, I was riding a train to Boston from Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I bumped into one of the more infamous convicted statutory rapists in America.
Owen Labrie, who made national headlines as the defendant in a lengthy New Hampshire prep school rape trial last year, was wearing a beige LL Bean fleece.
At the end of his senior year at St. Paul's, Labrie—who was a prefect and once awarded the school's highest honor for "selfless devotion to school activities"—partook in a campus hookup game called, the "Senior Salute." He was subsequently convicted for three misdemeanor statutory rape charges, a charge of endangering a child, and a felony computer charge—for seducing and fornicating with a 15-year-old girl. Labrie has since been sentenced to a year in county jail and made to register as a sex offender.
But there he was Monday afternoon, free—albeit under a strict curfew as he appeals his conviction. I recognized him instantly, as I was one of dozens of journalists who flocked to the cramped New Hampshire courthouse to cover the trial for VICE.
Media interest in the scandal at a prestigious prep school has been criticized by some, most notably Labrie's then attorney, J. W. Carney. The lawyer nonetheless saw fit to provide reporters with lengthy daily press conferences, and took to having his client shake hands with him in front of the camera.
What sparked my own interest in the case was that a familiar phenomenon—the objectification of young women—was, at St. Paul's, said to be ritualized. The "Senior Salute" was basically a game where graduating seniors asked underclass students to meet for a romantic encounter, anything from a walk to sex. They would then tally their conquests, with victors in the conquest passing around a ceremonial mask, according to prosecutors. But elaborate rich kid sex games aside, it was also a case that highlighted the basic difficulties of proving or disproving acquaintance rape, and came at a time when sexual assault on school campuses was receiving increased attention.
This was one of the rare cases that actually went to a public trial.
Adding to the drama on Monday, seconds after I stepped onto the train, a man got his arm stuck in the door. The whole train car screamed while a woman pulled him loose. As the poor guy quietly walked on board, rubbing his arm, another man pulled out a Rubix cube and began to curse the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) at the top of his lungs.
That's when I walked over to Labrie.
I introduced myself as a reporter who covered his trial, and I sat down. To my surprise, Labrie greeted me warmly. He said he liked VICE's coverage, but since I had compared him to a contemporary of the protagonist in The Talented Mr. Ripley, I am skeptical he actually read it.
He was visiting his girlfriend, a Harvard student, and had taken her out to brunch, Labrie told me. They met at the end of his senior year, around the same time as the incident for which he was later convicted. She quietly supported him in the courtroom, he maintained. After many months at his home in Vermont, Labrie said he was just beginning to reenter society. It was a process that was at times rewarding, with strangers approaching him to offer their support.
Strangers have also come up to him and literally thrown blows, he told me, miming a punch to the face.
He talked about emotional "ups and downs" and having his life "torn apart" in the media. It was strange, perhaps, for him to be commiserating with me—arguably one of those responsible for tearing him apart. We only had five stops to go, but I was curious to learn what he made of all the attention.
Labrie's case continued to grab me after the trial itself, mostly because of the lingering media coverage. A professor at Harvard Law, writing for the New Yorker, suggested the case was about Americans criminalizing sex we don't like. A Newsweek feature and photoshoot focused, among other things, on the chapel he's been building since his conviction.
His attorneys made frequent references to that chapel in sentencing, too. As if a man's piety is evidence of his innocence. Hasn't anyone else watched Spotlight?
Labrie was miffed about a new Vanity Fair feature, "St. Paul's Before and After the Owen Labrie Rape Trial," that came out recently. I hadn't read it yet, but he warned it was a "hit piece." (Jezebel, for its part, argued the story didn't hit hard enough and claimed the magazine "doesn't know how to cover sexual assault.")
Varied public opinion is inevitable in instances of acquaintance rape, where the victim makes no claims of physically resisting the encounter. These cases involving consent inevitably rest on who the jury believes most—the alleged victim or the defendant. The jury essentially determined that Labrie was lying to the court when he claimed they didn't have sex, but the jurors did not find that the girl clearly expressed her lack of consent. He was acquitted of the more serious rape charges.
"That does not mean the victim consented to the sexual penetration," Judge Larry M. Smukler reminded the court during sentencing, countering Carney's assertion that this was a consensual act between teens.
Those sympathetic to Labrie point to the felony computer charge, arguing it was never meant to be applied to texting teenagers. Had Labrie reached out to the girl via phone, he would have been spared a lifetime on the sexual offender registry. Then again, these were no ordinary messages: Labrie and his peers shared email templates and strategies for scoring with younger girls; Labrie even had a list of potential targets, with the girl at the top, in capital letters.
Nancy Gertner, a professor at Harvard Law and a former federal judge, has said that in cases where there is some overlap—when online messages between teenagers cross the line from flirtations to calculated targeting—the felony law should be modified, just as Labrie's statutory rape charge was modified to a misdemeanor because of the closeness in age between him and the victim.
But Gertner believes the defense still had no business taking the case to trial.
"This was a fundamentally 'untriable' case," she tells me.
Before Labrie found Carney, he went through two other attorneys and refused multiple plea deals—including at least one in which he would have served only a month in jail and done no time on the sex offender's list.
While the terms of consent may have rested on only the word of two people in a dark room, the evidence that the two had sex was much more hefty. The prosecution presented evidence of semen and DNA, a vaginal tear, testimony, and documents of Labrie's written and spoken assertions to his peers that the two did in fact have sex. Even if Labrie's explanation—dry humping, premature ejaculation, boyish bragging—were true, it's difficult to imagine how he or his attorneys were convinced it would carry the day.
According to Vanity Fair, which cited a senior law enforcement source, if at any time during the investigation Labrie acknowledged wrongdoing or regret, he likely would have been sent to a sex-offender diversion program, and never been convicted at all. No jail time, no prolonged public scrutiny.
That's what ultimately makes Labrie come off as pathological: his own arrogance.
On the train, Labrie told me what he's said before: Pleading not guilty, instead of quietly settling, was a matter of his belief that he knew the truth. Something he did to sleep at night. Something for which he has no regrets.
He continued to praise me and inquire about my chosen profession as an independent writer. I had run into an acquaintance from high school just minutes prior, but somehow meeting Labrie was less awkward. I started to feel bad for him. What if this whole case really was an elaborate plot?
We got off at South Station in Boston. I took a few steps, and I realized he'd been charming people the same way he did me his entire life.
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