By Ted Siefer
CONCORD, N.H. (Reuters) - A former student of an elite New Hampshire prep school was found not guilty on Friday of raping a 15-year-old girl days before graduation last year in a case that has shone a harsh spotlight on the school's culture.
Owen Labrie, 19, was found not guilty of three felony counts of sexually assaulting a fellow student at St. Paul's School in Concord. The jury found him guilty of lesser misdemeanor counts of having sex with a person under the age of consent, as well as a felony count of using online communications to seduce a minor.
Labrie closed his eyes and began to sob as the first verdict, finding him guilty of computer-related seduction, was read but regained his composure as the jury forewoman read out the three not guilty verdicts. His lawyer, J.W. Carney, patted his back to soothe him.
He could face a sentence of up to 11 years in prison for the charges he was found guilty of. Each felony sex assault count had carried a potential sentence of as much as 20 years in prison.
Central to the trial was the "senior salute," a longstanding tradition among St. Paul's students that involved seniors inviting underclassmen to get together before graduation, often for sexual purposes.
The accuser, who spent more than two days on the stand, acknowledged agreeing to Labrie's invitation for a "senior salute," but said she expected to kiss Labrie and not go much further. She said Labrie aggressively kept pushing her until she was "frozen" in fear and unable to resist.
"Today, a measure of justice has been served for victims of sexual violence," the girl's family said in a statement. "Owen Labrie was held accountable in some way by a jury of his peers for the crimes he committed against our daughter."
Carney, a prominent Boston defense attorney, argued that Labrie and the teen, whose sister was a senior at the school, had a mutually flirtatious relationship and went on to have a consensual encounter that stopped short of intercourse.
The defense had focused on the testimony of a close friend of the accuser, who said the teen told her that she was willing to engage in certain sex acts short of intercourse. The accuser denied having said it.
Carney, whose high-profile clients have included Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, said the teen accused Labrie of rape only after rumors of their encounter began to spread.
The accuser, Carney said, "had to make a decision whether it would be her reputation that would go into the toilet, or Owen's and she took the easier choice."
Prosecutors had argued that Labrie targeted the teen for a last sexual conquest before graduation, citing Facebook messages in which he boasted of having sex with her and a list of girls he compiled that he wanted to "slay," school slang for sex, with the teen's name in all-capital letters.
St. Paul's, whose alumni include powerful U.S. business and political leaders such as Secretary of State John Kerry, said the tradition did not accurately reflect its culture.
Defense attorneys had sought to portray Labrie, of Tunbridge, Vermont, as a hardworking and ambitious student, who unlike many of the students at the prestigious boarding school did not come from a privileged background and was able to attend only because he had earned a scholarship to do so.
(Reporting by Ted Siefer; Editing by Scott Malone, Toni Reinhold and Richard Chang)