(AP/Jim Cole)

Justice for St. Paul's victim: Judge's sentence for Owen Labrie's sexual assault of a freshman shows progress in how we recognize the crime

Labrie gets a year in jail plus 5 years of probation, and will have to register as a sex offender


Mary Elizabeth Williams
October 30, 2015 7:26PM (UTC)

This is what a sexual assailant looks like. It's not always a hulking figure wearing a ski mask and wielding a knife. It's a respected film director. A famous athlete. A bespectacled white prep school kid with ambitions to become a minister. Not too long ago, Owen Labrie was headed to Harvard on a full scholarship. On Thursday, Judge Larry M. Smukler of Merrimack Superior Court sentenced to a year in jail, plus five years of probation. He will also have to register as a sex offender.

Labrie, now 20, was an 18 year-old student at New Hampshire's elite St. Paul’s School when he invited a 15 year-old freshman student via Facebook "to come with me, to climb these hidden steps, and to bask in the nicest view." What she didn't know was that the encounter was part of a tradition known as a "senior salute," in which seniors attempt to hook up with as many underclassmen as possible before graduation. During the investigation of what happened after the girl met with him, Labrie claimed the practice was "widespread." But in August, Lt. Timothy O'Malley of the Concord Police Department told ABC News, "It's not evident so far in our investigation that other students were intent on targeting underage females."

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During the ensuing trial, Prosecutor Catherine Ruffle said the tradition could be used as a way for students "to be with someone that they might have wanted to be with throughout," but that Labrie had been driven by competitiveness. The New York Times reports that he "told the police that he was one of many students trying to beat out his peers by seeing how often he could 'score.'"

And what emerged during the trial was that while he was inviting the girl to bask in the view, he was texting a friend "I'M SLAYIN" with her. He later said he'd used "used every trick in the book" on her. When he met with her, he brought a blanket and a condom. He later claimed they'd had a consensual encounter but not sex. She said he took her to the mechanical room and raped her. During the trial, Labrie's attorney J.W. Carney argued that "They had a date, yes, a senior salute, they got together, they kissed, they hugged" but did not go further, and that the senior salute was ultimately a "tragedy that befell both these kids."

In a split verdict in August, a jury acquitted Labrie of rape, but found him guilty of misdemeanor sexual assault, endangering a child, and using computer services to lure a minor.

For a case to go as far as Labrie's did is unusual. As Emily Bazelon noted back in August, "New Hampshire is among the minority of states that do not require showing force was involved to prove rape. In 1995, the state adopted language providing that a person is guilty of sexual assault if he or she sexually penetrates another person when 'the victim indicates by speech or conduct that there is not freely given consent.'" In the trial, the girl attested that she "I didn’t kick or scream or push. I didn’t — but I did say no. I said no three times."

But she also said, "I tried to be as polite as possible … I wanted to not cause a conflict…" She said it was painful and that "I felt like I was frozen." And she admitted, "I didn’t want him to laugh at me. I didn’t want to offend him."

During a video statement to the court this week, she said, "I know why people don’t come forward and it kills me to say that." In handing down his sentence Thursday, Judge Smukler said, "She was in over her head. That’s very clear."

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The legal system is very slowly beginning to grasp that sexual assault is not always a clearcut case of a person kicking and screaming and pushing. It can happen to someone to someone who just a short time prior was attracted to the attacker. It can happen to someone who doesn't want to make a fuss. In his closing remarks, Judge Smukler said, "This is a day of justice for the victim. I have to recognize what you did to her when you committed the crime." And he added to the young man who sweet talked a girl while bragging to his buddies, "Bluntly, if you did express remorse, I think it would have been dishonest. In some ways, you’re a very good liar."


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Owen Labrie Senior Salute Sexual Assault St. Paul's

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