Her name was supposed to be secret. The crime against the 15-year-old girl was sadly routine. But instead, the story of an unwanted sexual encounter on her prep school campus grabbed the attention of people across the country.
Advocates say how the St. Paul’s School sexual assault case was covered and tried could have ripple effects for other victims wrestling with their own assaults. The media circus surrounding the trial shoved the victim unwillingly into the limelight, which may discourage other assault victims from reporting their crimes, they say.
On Thursday, Owen Labrie will be sentenced in the case and could face up to seven years in prison. Labrie, now 20, was found guilty in August by a Merrimack County jury of three misdemeanor counts of having sex with an underage girl and a felony charge of using a computer to solicit her. He was acquitted of the more serious charges of aggravated rape.
His punishment will automatically include a lifetime on the sex offender registry.
The defense is asking for probation and counseling. His attorneys tried, and failed, to get the judge to dismiss the felony charge, arguing it was “cruel and unusual’’ to label him a sex offender for having what a jury ruled was consensual sex with another teen. Defense attorneys did not return a message seeking comment.
The girl and her family went through “hell and back,’’ said Laura Dunn, who counseled the family as the director and founder of SurvJustice, an organization that works with victims of sexual assault.
“She went through that grueling trial,’’ Dunn said. “She testified at great detail and at great personal expense … He really did commit sexual harm against the survivor and her life is forever changed.’’
A live stream from the trial inadvertently included the girl’s name when uttered by attorneys, which led to vicious message board postings about the girl and her family. Online trolls called her a liar and posted photos of her and real estate listings of the family’s home.
Advocates fear that one high profile case could scare off other victims.
“All those things make victims question whether or not it’s a good choice to go forward,’’ said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public policy for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
After witnessing how Labrie’s victim was treated, she has discussed with colleagues whether they would encourage their own children to report a sexual assault.
“We’d hope that everyone who wants to go through the criminal justice system would be able to do so in a safe, secure way,’’ she said. “Now, I don’t think that’s the case.’’
Despite the drama, there’s some evidence that the case may have actually emboldened some victims to speak out.
New Hampshire’s sexual assault hotlines were flooded with more calls than normal during and right after the trial by victims who were triggered by the testimony, what they read in articles and saw on television, Grady Sexton said.
“We are hearing from victims who were absolutely inspired by the courage the victim in this case showed,’’ she said.
Other investigators and prosecutors might be more willing to pursue thse difficult cases as a result of the prosecution in Labrie’s case, Dunn said.
“It really stood out to me that this jurisdiction in New Hampshire investigated [the assault] seriously and gave it the dignity and time and effort worthy of the heinousness of this crime,’’ she said. “The prosecutors shouldered the burden and took on this case, where a lot of other places would have just let it go.’’
Defense attorneys who watched the case noted the decision to have Labrie testify about what happened in that campus room and hope his words may give other teenagers pause. Labrie maintained the encounter was consensual and that he had no idea the girl was unwilling during what he described as a hot and heavy hookup.
Under cross examination, prosecutors presented his own words to friends about “porking’’ and “slaying’’ the 15-year-old girl.
“I think young people who paid attention to this case, and hopefully some did, will recognize that the age of consent is the age of consent,’’ said Eric Wilson, a New Hampshire defense attorney. “Young people in high school or going off to college may take a second look at who and how they engage in sexual activity.’’
In the Labrie case, the jury ultimately issued a split verdict, disagreeing that Labrie knowingly raped her, but rejecting his argument that they never had penetrative sex. That shouldn’t be looked at as an unsuccessful case, said Viktoria Kristiansson, an attorney advisor for Aequitas, a group that advises prosecutors and others involved in sexual assault cases.
Instead, she said, the question should be: how was the survivor treated during the ordeal of reporting the assault?
“If at the conclusion of the trial, the prosecutors, the detectives, all the professionals who responded can say to themselves, we did all we could do to support this survivor and his or her family, and hold the offender accountable for perpetrating the sexual assault, then in many cases, we will have achieved success,’’ she said. “Regardless of the outcome, which ultimately we can’t control.’’
Dunn said the girl and her family have gotten letters from other survivors, thanking her for her bravery and her willingness to tell her story so publicly.
“That hopefully is a new norm,’’ she said. “Rallying around survivors in a community.’’