CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The lead lawyer for a New Hampshire prep school graduate charged with sexual assault defended his handling of the case Thursday, saying his team prevented “toxic” and damaging evidence from being presented at trial.
Owen Labrie, of Tunbridge, Vermont, was acquitted in 2015 of raping a 15-year-old classmate the previous year as part of Senior Salute, a game of sexual conquest at St. Paul’s School in Concord. He was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault, child endangerment, and using a computer to lure the girl for sex, a felony that requires him to register as a sex offender for life.
Though sentenced to a year in jail, Labrie, 21, has remained free under curfew while he both appeals his conviction and requests a new trial based on ineffective counsel.
A three-day hearing on Labrie’s request ended Thursday with testimony from attorney J.W. Carney Jr., the lead trial lawyer. Attorneys on both sides have until March 6 to submit written arguments to the judge, who will then have 30 days to make a decision.
Labrie argues that his former defense team harmed his case by waiting until he was convicted to challenge the computer charge and by missing opportunities to damage the credibility of key witnesses, including the victim and some of Labrie’s friends.
But Carney said he and the other attorneys made a strategic decision to limit that kind of questioning because it would have opened the door for prosecutors to bring in evidence that either bolstered the girl’s account or painted Labrie as someone with a history of sexual aggression.
In particular, attempting to prevent testimony about what the girl told three friends just after her meeting with Labrie became the “lynchpin” for the entire case, Carney said, because they would have corroborated the girl’s claim that Labrie forced himself on her.
“It would be toxic to the defense if (they) were permitted to state that before the jury,” he said.
Similarly, Carney said, he didn’t argue that Labrie had been singled out for prosecution when other male students had engaged in similar behavior because that would have allowed testimony about Labrie’s sexual past.
“There were a number of references to other women Owen had dated in which he acted in ways, according to the women, that were very aggressive, that were forceful, that led to Owen having a very bad reputation at the St. Paul’s campus among women as someone who’d be so aggressive that he would actually go so far as to inflict injury,” Carney said.
Labrie also argues that he should not have been charged with or convicted of using a computer to lure the girl for sex because Labrie exchanged messages with the girl through the school’s intranet, not the wider internet as the law specifies.
Carney said he reviewed the law but did not research it, and was unaware of the difference between an intranet and the internet.
Earlier in the hearing, Jaye Rancourt, who served as local counsel to Labrie’s out-of-state defense team, said she was so troubled by Carney’s handling of the case that she considered asking for a mistrial, particularly after witnessing a conversation he had with a DNA expert in which he appeared wholly unprepared.
Rancourt said it was clear Carney had never met the expert before, but Carney said they had met for more than two hours several weeks before the trial. Rancourt said she considers her failure to speak up to be ineffective counsel.
Another member of Carney’s team, attorney Samir Zaganjori, said waiting to challenge the computer charge until after the verdict was not “ideal representation” but he said overall Labrie received effective counsel.
At the start of his testimony, Carney said he takes full responsibility for his team’s actions. Asked by Labrie’s current attorney, Robin Melone, if that included instances in which an attorney admitted being ineffective, Carney said, “I admit I am responsible for what they did. We may disagree regarding whether it was ineffective or not.”
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