CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire’s Supreme Court heard biting criticism of a prep school graduate’s star-studded legal team Wednesday, as his lawyer argued he deserved a new trial following his conviction for using a computer to lure an underage student for sex.
Owen Labrie, 23, of Tunbridge, Vermont, was acquitted in 2015 of raping a 15-year-old classmate as part of “Senior Salute,” a game of sexual conquest, at St. Paul’s School. But he was found guilty of a felony computer charge and several misdemeanor counts of sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child.
The computer law says no one shall knowingly use a computer online service “to seduce, solicit, lure or entice a child” to commit sexual assault.
Christopher Johnson, a lawyer for Labrie, argued Wednesday his trial lawyers were ineffective for a slew of reasons, including failing to mount a defense against the computer charge or effectively communicate that Labrie had no intention of having sex with Chessy Prout when he sent her the messages.
The lead trial lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., is a well-known defense attorney whose clients included the late Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
“A defense attorney obligation is to have a strategy and execute that strategy reasonably,” Johnson told the court. “These lawyers, as shown in their post-conviction testimony, recognized the mental state was the place where they wanted to stake their defense. The problem was they totally failed to execute that theory.”
Two years ago, Prout spoke publicly about the assault for the first time. Prout, now 20, has since become an advocate for sexual assault survivors and co-wrote a memoir, “I Have The Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope,” with Boston Globe journalist Jenn Abelson. The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, as Prout has done.
Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke told the court that Labrie’s trial lawyers did a good job, since their client was found not guilty on the charges of rape that would have carried a prison sentence of 30 years to 60 years.
He also argued Labrie’s push for a new trial hinges on his presenting the case as if the computer charge was the most important of all of them — since he was convicted of the charge, which requires him to register as a sex offender.
“The defense counsel focused their argument on the most serious charges and this mirrored what the state did in its argument,” Locke said. “In so doing, they didn’t provide ineffective counsel, particularly because the defendant was acquitted of the most serious charges he was facing.”
Several judges appeared to be sympathetic to that argument, questioning whether this was more a complaint about the trial strategy undertaken by Carney — focused on the credibility of Prout and Labrie’s intentions — than his skills as a lawyer.
After the trial, Carney asked a judge unsuccessfully to set aside the guilty verdict on the computer charge. He said it never occurred to him that it was an issue worth exploring before the trial.
Labrie, who was in court, did not speak to reporters.
This is the second attempt by Labrie to seek a new trial after the Supreme Court earlier this month upheld his convictions on the computer charge. The court dismissed arguments by Labrie’s lawyers that prosecutors failed to prove intent in his use of the computer and also that the law was meant to be used to target sexual predators and pedophiles combing the internet, not in cases like this.
Along with his appeals for a new trial, Labrie is asking that a judge to suspend the remainder of his one-year jail sentence. No hearing has been set on that request.
Labrie served two months in jail for curfew violations in 2016. His lawyer said he’s complied with his bail conditions, which included a stringent curfew.
If his sentence is not suspended, Labrie’s lawyer wants him to be allowed to attend a work-release program or home confinement. He recently found a full-time job.
Prosecutors want Labrie to serve the rest of his term. They said they also contacted the victim’s family, which objected to the sentence proposal.