A graduate of an elite prep school who was convicted of having sexual contact with a 15-year-old classmate as part of a game of sexual conquest will be required to register as a sex offender for life, a punishment his lawyer likens to being branded and legal experts and reform advocates say exceeds the crime.
Owen Labrie, 19, was convicted Friday following a two-week trial full of lurid details that exposed a practice at St. Paul’s School known as Senior Salute, in which graduating students try to have sex with younger classmates. Besides a felony conviction for using a computer to invite the girl to the encounter when he was 18 years old, he was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault and child endangerment. He faces anywhere from probation to 11 years in prison when he’s sentenced in October.
Under New Hampshire’s 1992 law that established the sex offender registry, the felony conviction mandates lifetime registration, though a change made in 2008 means Labrie, of Tunbridge, Vermont, can petition the court to be removed from the list 15 years after the end of his sentence. The misdemeanor charges put him on the list for at least 10 years before he can ask to be removed.
Labrie had been accepted to Harvard University and planned to take divinity courses. He testified that he and the girl had consensual sexual contact after he invited her to participate in Senior Salute, but he denied having intercourse. The girl acknowledged going willingly with Labrie to an academic building on the Concord campus two days before graduation last year but said she was unprepared when he became aggressive.
Professor Stephen Saltzburg, from the George Washington University Law School, said Labrie’s registry registration could be viewed as excessive.
“There’s a good case to be made that, while the young man may have taken advantage of a considerably younger female, the idea of lifetime registration seems over the top,” Saltzburg said.
The public list of people who have committed sex crimes against children, which is posted online, includes an offender’s name, age, address, photograph, crimes and, sometimes, a victim profile.
After the trial, Labrie’s lawyer said the convictions “forever changed” his life and will be like “a brand, a tattoo” that will follow him. Lawyer J.W. Carney declined to comment on Monday. Labrie is free on $15,000 bail as he awaits sentencing.
Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public policy for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the registry law was properly applied in Labrie’s case. She said the practice of Senior Salute is built on the idea that older students target underclassmen emotionally incapable of consenting to sexual contact.
“In our assessment, Owen Labrie used planned, predatory behaviors to entice a vulnerable child, and that is exactly what we know is the behavior of a sexual predator,” she said. “We certainly think he has earned his place on the registry.”
The scandal cast a harsh glare on the 159-year-old boarding school, which has been a training ground for America’s elite. Its alumni include U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, at least 13 U.S. ambassadors and sons of the Astor and Kennedy families. Students pay $53,810 a year in tuition, room and board.
Wanda Duryea, a victim of child molestation and sexual assault and a board member at the Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform-New Hampshire, said the sex offender registry needs to be changed and there’s “no discretion on the judge’s part, it’s legislated.”
“It is the most egregious thing I’ve ever seen that they’re going to register this 19-year-old child for the rest of his life,” Duryea said.
The Associated Press usually doesn’t identify people who are victims of sexual assault, but Duryea has spoken publicly about her story.
State Sen. Sharon Carson, a Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said any bill to change the registry law would get a full airing in the legislature.
“It hasn’t been changed in a while. Do we need to update it?” she said. “It is a law that is currently on our books, and that is how the court has interpreted the law. I’m open to taking a look at it.”