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Does a Teen's Sex Crime Deserve Extra Punishment if He Used the Internet to Commit It?

Former elite prep school student Owen Labrie will be a registered sex offender for life because he used a computer to lure his 15-year-old victim into a nonconsensual hook-up.

Susan Zalkind

Susan Zalkind

Photo via Flickr user Blek

When a 15-year-old classmate at St. Paul prep school rejected 18-year-old Owen Labrie's initial invitation to meet up as part of a campus romantic rite of passage called the Senior Salute, he was upset. "Another dumb cunt-bucket struck from my nut sucking, suck it slut, slut fuckin bucket list," he wrote to a friend in a Facebook message in late April 2014.

Labrie was quoting a poem, "I Fuck Sluts," by the comedian Bo Burnham.

Understandably, that was not one of Labrie's go-to poems for seducing girls. The messages he actually sent the younger teen, spruced with French song lyrics and writing that sounded like he was reading a little too much Milton, eventually convinced her to meet him on the roof of a campus building, and then to the mechanical room, where he had sex with her. These messages upped the legal ante in the case against Labrie. He was convicted not only of misdemeanor statutory crimes but also a felony charge of using a computer to lure a child.

Senior Salute rendezvous—or meetings between graduating seniors and underclassmen—at St. Paul often result in hook-ups, encounters that are subsequently tallied for bragging purposes. The sexual culture at the elite school was the center of Labrie's weeks-long rape trial this summer, and his email inviting the victim to a Senior Salute and other messages would prove critical to the case against him. On Thursday, in a Concord, New Hampshire, courtroom, Judge Larry M. Smukler sentenced Labrie to a year in jail and five years probation for the misdemeanor charges and a suspended three-and-a-half-to-seven-year sentence for the felony. He is currently out on bail pending appeal.

Even though he won't serve time in state prison, because of the felony charge Labrie will have to spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender. His case has led some to question whether teens facing misdemeanors should be punished more harshly just because they used the internet to carry out the deed.

The now-20-year-old's attorney, J.W. Carney, filed a motion arguing that the felony conviction isn't fair, and the law was written to target predator catfish or adults targeting kids in chat rooms, not teenagers. "If he merely called the 15-year-old on the telephone or spoken to her in person there would be no additional crime," Carney argued in a motion.

The Boston Herald's Peter Gelzinis wrote that Labrie was a scholar-athlete who "flushed a free ride to Harvard down the toilet while trying to make good on one last St. Paul's tradition." Jail time and sexual assault registration are too severe for Labrie, Gelzinis argued, suggesting he should do community service working with victims of sexual assault instead.

But Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, vehemently disagrees. "This law was absolutely designed for this kind of assault," she told me. "The intent of the legislature was to include all predators who use technology to lure.

"The reality is people will do things behind a screen or a keyboard that they won't do face to face," Schollett added.

The severity the computer charge adds to Labrie's sentencing may come as a surprise to anyone who uses social media as their primary means of communication—which is to say anyone under 40. But it's not uncommon for the state to charge teenagers with computer sex charges, even teens in statutory cases, according to veteran New Hampshire defense attorney Paul Garrity.

"The charge of the use of a computer is not a shocker," Garrity says, adding that prosecutors typically use discretion in deciding which cases the computer charge is appropriate. What's surprising, according to Garrity, is that Smukler only sentenced him to jail time and didn't put the guy in prison for the felony. "I'm guessing his age factored in a good way for him," he says.

Judge Smukler denied Labrie's motion to drop the felony charge. Meanwhile, the state released additional Facebook messages revealing his calculating strategy just ahead of the sentencing. For instance, Labrie discussed his seduction techniques with the same friend to whom he sent the Burnham poem, Malcolm Salovaara, an alum of the elite prep school who currently attends Dartmouth.

In the course of these messages, the two young men went over the textbook techniques of their peers. One strategy: "complete indifference towards anything with a vagina." Another: play the "alpha male" for which one must "just slay everyone."

Finally there was Labrie's technique of choice dubbed by Salovaara as, "THE LABREAZY SLEAZY METHOD."

Unlike the line about the "cunt-buckets," the Labreazy Sleazy method was entirely of Labrie's own creation. He broke down his strategy to Salovaara. "feign intimacy... then stab them in the back," he wrote, later exclaiming, "THROW EM IN THE DUMPSTER.

"I lie in bed with them... and pretend like i'm in love," he wrote, subsequently breaking down the Labreazy Sleazy Method into three words: "EMAIL-POEM-BONE"

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Labreazy Sleazy Method neglects to consider consent.

Though Carney would later try to argue that since the jury found him not guilty of the forcible assault charges, the encounter between Labrie and the girl was essentially consensual, Judge Smukler set the record straight on Thursday.

"This was not consensual," he said. Not only did Labrie fail to get to know the girl and understand her responses and reactions, his age played a significant factor.

"She was in over her head," the judge said.

The victim claimed that after Labrie stripped her down to her underwear, she said "no" and then froze when he ignored her requests, scraping her insides with his finger, spitting on her vagina, and penetrating her.

Speaking to the court via a recorded video statement on Thursday, the girl said, "What he did to me made me feel like I didn't belong on this planet and I would be better off dead," she said. "In the past almost year and a half since I've been assaulted I've lead some of the scariest hardest days of my life."

The victim further claimed private investigators contacted her younger sister, that she was threatened online, and that the St. Paul hockey team stopped and pointed at her while she was walking on campus alone. She eventually had to transfer to a different school, and said she suffers from panic attacks. At times, these panic attacks led her to hurt herself, she told the court. "I thought by feeling something it would make the panic stop," she said.

Bizarrely, before the trial began, Labrie rejected a plea deal that would have kept him off the sex offender's registry. Instead, he took the stand and claimed the encounter was a mutual hookup that involving dry-humping and "divine inspiration." Said inspiration steered Labrie away from penetrating the girl, he claimed. The semen on the inside of her underwear was precum, he insisted.

The victim says a settlement wouldn't have just saved Labrie from a felony conviction and a lifetime as a pariah, it would have saved her a lot of pain, too. "It's terrible to say but I know why people don't come forward," she said, adding that she still blames herself for freezing instead of fighting her assailant. "Why didn't I kick or push or scream or do anything, why couldn't I do more?

In the year and a half since he was charged, Labrie has begun to construct a chapel by hand on his father's land in rural Vermont, according to the defense. Carney calls Labrie's conviction his "fall from grace" and his "crucible." The defense also entered multiple letters from people passionately advocating on Labrie's behalf, many of whom say they connected by Christianity. One student claimed he mentored her in poetry, and neighbors and even an ex-girlfriend's mother wrote glowing letters on his behalf. An Episcopal priest called Labrie a "spiritual pioneer."

Probably wisely, when talking to the priest, Labrie decided to recite a poem by St. John rather than Bo Burnham.

Prosecutor Catherine J. Ruffle argues that Labrie's intelligence, charisma and charm "are often the same qualities that we see in very dangerous sex offenders." Smukler took the middle road. "You are neither the angel that is portrayed by your council... or the devil that is portrayed by the state," he told Labrie.

But ultimately the judge decided Labrie wasn't trustworthy. "In some ways, you're a very good liar," Smukler told him.

He ordered Labrie to take another psychosexual test, since his first analyst was not privy to all of the details of the case. He hoped the next analyst would be able to test someone with Labrie's intelligence. "You are a very good test taker, you may be very well prepared," the judge added.

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