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After Labrie Case, N.H. Lawmaker Pushes Bill to Loosen Punishment For Teen Sex Messaging

  • FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2017 file photo, Owen Labrie looks at his family during a break on the first day of a hearing in Concord, N.H., whether he deserves a new trial. Labrie an elite prep school graduate convicted of using a computer to lure an underage student for sex is asking the New Hampshire Supreme Court for a new trial by arguing he had ineffective counsel. He was acquitted in 2015 of raping a 15-year-old classmate as part of a game of sexual conquest at St. Paul's School. The court is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, that Labrie's trial lawyers were ineffective because they failed to challenge the computer charge. (Geoff Forester/The Concord Monitor via AP, Pool, File)

  • Owen Labrie (center) leaves the New Hampshire Supreme Court with lawyer Robin Melone after his appeal to the court on ineffective counsel on Wednesday, November 28, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

Concord Monitor
Published: 12/16/2018 12:08:19 AM
Modified: 12/16/2018 12:08:36 AM

A New Hampshire state lawmaker is looking to change the law that led to St. Paul’s School graduate Owen Labrie’s lone felony conviction three years ago that forced him to register as a sex offender for life.

Labrie, of Tunbridge, was convicted of misdemeanor statutory rape charges for having sex with a 15-year-old freshman as part of the “Senior Salute,” a now-infamous tradition at St. Paul’s where upperclassmen competed for intimate encounters with younger pupils. Labrie, who was 18 at the time, was acquitted of felony rape charges but convicted of using a computer to pursue the girl for sex.

State Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline, thinks the same age exemptions that currently exist under the state’s statutory rape law should be applied to the computer felony.

“I don’t believe the state of New Hampshire wants to make teenagers felons,” Flanagan said, arguing the present law is too punitive.

The luring felony, titled “Certain Uses of Computer Services Prohibited,” applies to anyone who uses an online service to “seduce, solicit, lure or entice” a child in order to sexually assault them, expose themselves, or endanger them. An early draft of Flanagan’s bill would exempt defendants accused of soliciting teenagers between 13 and 16 if the age difference between the defendant and the alleged victim is four years or fewer.

Flanagan said on Friday he likely will alter that draft to better protect alleged teenage victims, after he consulted with Brookline’s police chief.

Now 23, Labrie continues to appeal his convictions, including using a computer to lure the freshman girl for sex, after messaging her over Facebook and email.

That felony carries a lifetime listing on the sex offenders registry. Under Flanagan’s bill, Labrie would have been exempt from the felony once he was acquitted of the felony rape charges.

For Flanagan, exempting teenagers of similar age from sexual solicitation would decriminalize interactions that are common.

“I’m sure teenagers are intimate these days, whether they’re 16, 17 or even 14,” he said.

But the proposed bill — still in draft stages — drew swift criticism from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which said the law already is used judiciously and called it a backstop against inappropriate sexual advances at any age level.

“We oppose any legislation that would prohibit prosecutors from being able to make these vital distinctions,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

The computer statute, first enacted in 1998, was passed after a Nashua, N.H., case in which a 22-year-old man solicited a 13-year-old girl in an internet chat room and then ran away with her.

But the law proved a point of contention during Labrie’s 2015 trial. Labrie’s lawyers at one point argued it was not meant to apply to cases where teenagers are similarly aged; prosecutors countered that the weekslong planning Labrie put into the encounter constituted behavior the law was designed to prevent.

Flanagan argued his proposed bill, which will receive a hearing in the House next session, would not prevent teenagers from facing statutory rape or sexual assault charges if they violate consent.

“No is no,” he said. “I have three daughters. I’m certainly sensitive from that perspective. If a male is approaching a female, and the female says no, then it’s no.”

The eventual bill, he said, would restore the original intention of the computer law: to prevent adults from soliciting children over the internet.

“I would imagine there are going to be people who feel that their lives have been impacted by sexual assault,” he said. “And I’m not denying that. My perspective, though, is that I want to make sure that the legislation that was introduced gets to be applied in the way it was meant to be introduced.”

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