Owen Labrie behaved despicably. As a senior at St. Paul’s, the elite New Hampshire prep school, he lured a 15-year-old freshman into having sex with him, as part of a repulsive tradition known as “senior salute,” in which graduating boys compete to “slay” the greatest number of girls.
And yet I find myself unsettled over the harshness of Labrie’s sentence. Not so much the year in jail – about that I remain hopelessly conflicted – but about his lifetime branding as a sex offender. The laws used to prosecute his actions and land him on the sex offender registry were not intended for such situations, nor does the punishment fulfill the statutes’ intended purpose.
Labrie was charged with raping the freshman, but acquitted of that crime – correctly so, in my view. The evidence was muddled about whether the girl clearly communicated her lack of consent. She seemed flattered by attention from the soccer captain on his way to Harvard on a full scholarship and reluctant to protest because “I didn’t want to come off as an inexperienced little girl. … I was trying to be cool.”
She testified that she told Labrie to stop – but also that she lifted her hips so he could remove her shorts. “He couldn’t know that I was uncomfortable because I was laughing,” she told police. She told a school nurse the intercourse was consensual and exchanged friendly emails with Labrie after the encounter (“You’re quite the angel yourself”). He claimed at trial there was no penetration, although he bragged to friends afterward that he had “boned” the freshman.
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The charges of which Labrie was convicted were four misdemeanors that essentially involved statutory rape – having sexual activity with a girl too young to give consent – and endangering the welfare of a minor, plus the felony of using a computer “to seduce, solicit, lure or entice a child” for sexual activity.
As to the statutory rape, reasonable people can differ over the appropriate age of consent and whether sex between two teenagers should be criminalized. In an era when more than a quarter of girls report having had sex by the their 16th birthday, the pool of potential criminals is enormous. Should the difference of a few months be the sole determinant of whether Labrie’s behavior was criminal?
More troubling is the felony count on which Labrie was convicted and sentenced to five years’ probation. This law was intended to prevent sexual predators from trolling the Internet – not to punish teenagers from communicating online.
The fact that he used email and Facebook Messenger to seduce the freshman morphed Labrie’s misdemeanors into a felony conviction. In turn, the felony conviction, because it involves a sex crime, ratcheted up Labrie’s punishment to include registration as a sex offender, even though the misdemeanor convictions would not have required that designation.
This is cruel and unnecessary punishment: Registering sex offenders is designed to protect the community against the threat of a repeat predator, which Labrie is not.
“There will be hundreds of places where he cannot reside because as a registered sex offender, he cannot be within a specified proximity to a church, playground, school or park,” Labrie’s attorneys wrote in court documents. “When he does relocate his residence, his introduction to the town will include the police department where he has to inform them of his status as a registered sex offender.”
That is not to paint Labrie in glowing terms. To read his profane Facebook messages is to cringe at the misogyny. “Feign intimacy … then stab them in the back. … THROW EM IN THE DUMPSTER,” he wrote a friend about his methods for becoming the winning “Slaymaker.”
Which brings up the larger point of the toxic atmosphere in which this behavior took place. St. Paul’s failed its students – and their parents, for that matter – by tacitly tolerating this behavior; the “senior salute” was known to administrators.
But it is too easy to conclude that this is a problem specific to St. Paul’s. One young friend, a male athlete and graduate of a different New England prep school, described “a macho culture of status and one-upmanship; to gain this status and the respect of your peers, you feel pressure to prove that you can score more goals, drink more beers, and, yes, ‘get with’ more girls.”
And that is the most chilling aspect of the case: Not that the freshman could be our daughter, but that Owen Labrie could be our son.
Washington Post Writers Group