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How social media played a key role in Owen Labrie's sexual assault case

E-mail messages and Facebook posts showed a culture of misogyny and entitlement among some students at St. Paul's School, leading a jury to find Owen Labrie, a recent graduate, guilty of using a computer to lure a 15-year-old classmate into what became a sexual assault.

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    Former St. Paul's School student Owen Labrie testifies in his trial for sexual assault at Merrimack Superior Court in Concord, N.H in August. After a judge upheld his felony conviction for using Facebook and email messages to lure a 15-year-old student into the assault, he will face lifetime sex offender registration and the possibility of a prison sentence.
    Charles Krupa/AP file
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A recent graduate of an elite prep school convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault faces lifetime registration as a sex offender after being found guilty of using a computer to lure an underage girl into a sexual encounter.

In the case of Owen Labrie, who was a senior at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire when he assaulted the 15-year-old student, a series of theatrical, vulgar, and sometimes juvenile messages between teenagers played a key role.

“Welcome to an eight-week exercise in debauchery, a probing exploration of the innermost meanings of the word ‘sleeze bag,’” Mr. Labrie wrote in an e-mail recalled by his former classmates during the trial. He was describing a practice among some students at St. Paul’s known as a “senior salute,” where graduating seniors proposition younger students, sometimes for sex.

“We will be exploring several essential questions,” he wrote, “Is life on earth heaven? Are there any gazelles left in this desolate savannah? Can sisters be slain in the same evening?”

He also used Facebook and e-mail messages to contact the student, inviting her to a mechanical room in a deserted academic building on campus, where they kissed and touched consensually.

Then, the student said, he raped her. Labrie maintained they hadn’t had sex, but said he had boasted to the contrary in messages to friends.

In New Hampshire, using a computer to "seduce, solicit, lure or entice" a minor into a sexual assault carries a far harsher punishment. After the trial, his lawyers argued the felony conviction that resulted from his use of a computer was unjust, saying the state legislature intended the 1998 law to protect children from older predators and strangers online, not high school classmates who were previously acquainted.

But last week, the trial judge rejected that argument, saying the legislature had intended the law to be applied broadly in more than just cases of strangers meeting online. In one case upheld by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the judge said, a father was convicted of the computer crimes charge after showing his 15-year-old daughter a pornographic video and then sexually assaulting her.

“[Labrie] could have used the telephone or engaged in direct face-to-face conversation. He also could have used a quill pen and parchment,” wrote Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler. “The legislature has rationally recognized, however, the danger posed by the use of a computer or the Internet, which combines the immediacy of conversation with the distance of a written communication conveyed by post.”

Labrie, who was previously admitted to Harvard University, where he intended to study theology, will now face sex offender registration and a sentence that could range from probation to up to 11 years in prison, though he can apply to have his name removed from the sex offender list in 15 years if he doesn't commit any further crimes. He is due to be sentenced Thursday.

The argument by his lawyers is one that often swirls around sexual assault cases on college campuses, one expert says.

“You’re trying to appeal to disbelief that people who know each other can’t rape each other,” says Jennifer Long, a former assistant district attorney who co-founded AEquitas, an organization that trains lawyers in prosecuting cases of sexual violence, in a recent interview.

People who study sex offenders, she says, “always warn us about putting ourselves in the shoes of offenders, because they use common behaviors, niceness, trust, and technologies that can be used for good, like the Internet, to perpetrate their crimes.”

Much of the trial focused on contrasting portrayals of the assault and of the culture that surrounded students at the elite school, which was characterized variously as a toxic mixture of misogyny and entitlement perhaps best symbolized by the senior salute, though some alumni said they did not recognize that portrayal of the school.

“St. Paul’s School failed the children with their attitude toward the senior salute,” J.W. Carney, Labrie’s lawyer, said during the trial. He said the school was a place where boys living away from home felt pressure to act like “studs,” the New York Times reported.

Some observers say perceptions of Labrie – a soccer captain and school prefect who attended St. Paul’s on a scholarship – may have clouded larger issues around sexual assault, particularly the issue of consent.

“I think there’s been a lot of sympathetic coverage of this young man,” says John Foubert, president of the non-profit One in Four, which works to end sexual assault on college campuses and a professor at Oklahoma State University. “One of the things that we’ve learned about perpetrators is that they’re very adept at convincing people that they’re nice guys and didn’t mean to do what they did ... and I think that’s what happened here.”

The issue of consent – which has been hotly debated on college campuses that have introduced so-called affirmative consent or “yes means yes” policies – also loomed over much of the trial, though it wasn’t heavily discussed, observers say.

“When you’re talking about consent, there is a tendency to take that first moment of consent and bring it all the way through,” says Ms. Long, the former prosecutor. “People sometimes forget about those common-sense things,” she adds. “Just because you agree to one thing, doesn’t mean you’ve agreed to everything, and you have the right to stop and say, 'I don’t want to do this anymore.' "

After the trial concluded, officials from St. Paul’s acknowledged that the issues raised about consent and the use of social media by students to describe sexual conquests in often-blunt terms were troubling.

“We have been painfully reminded of the fact that social media can provide an adult-free space for negative student culture to form and perpetuate itself,” the school’s rector Michael Hirschfield said in a statement.

While the school attempted to distance itself from senior salutes, saying they had only heard of the so-called “tradition” in 2013, the victim’s family said the school still bore some responsibility.

“We still feel betrayed that St. Paul’s School allowed and fostered a toxic culture that left our daughter and other students at risk to sexual violence,” the family said in a statement after the trial concluded. “We continue to feel anger and disappointment for the lack of character and integrity that the young men of St. Paul’s School showed, laughing and joking with Owen Labrie at graduation about ‘slaying’ our daughter.”

But Mr. Foubert says that for survivors of sexual assault, social media could have a more positive impact, helping them share information from across the country.

“I think another broad thing that’s happened is that survivors have begun to find each other and help each other navigate the process of reporting and addressing an assault,” he says, noting that students on college campuses have been particularly active in raising cases where an institution did not fully address their assault with the federal Office of Civil Rights.

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