CONCORD, N.H. -- A judge determining whether a New Hampshire prep school graduate received effective counsel during his sexual assault trial heard conflicting testimony Wednesday about whether defense lawyers were derailing the case or making reasonable strategic decisions.
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. Eighteen at the time of his arrest, he was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault and child endangerment and was sentenced to a year in jail. A conviction on a felony computer charge requires him to register as a sex offender for life.
Labrie, now 21, is free while he appeals his conviction and seeks a new trial. His appeal to the state Supreme Court is on hold while a Merrimack County Superior Court judge considers his request for a new trial based on ineffective counsel. A hearing on that matter began Tuesday and continued Wednesday and Thursday.
Jaye Rancourt, who served as local counsel to Labrie’s out-of-state defense team, said during cross-examination Wednesday that she was virtually shut out of the case.
Rancourt said she was so troubled by lead attorney J.W. Carney Jr.’s handling of the case that she considered asking for a mistrial, particularly after witnessing a conversation he had with a DNA witness in which he appeared wholly unprepared.
“That was the turning point,” she said. “The train was off the tracks.”
Under questioning from prosecutor Catherine Ruffle, Rancourt acknowledged that she did not approach either the judge or Labrie with her concerns, and said she realizes that amounts to ineffective counsel on her part.
“I didn’t want to scare him. I didn’t want to freak him out. This young man was on trial, he could go to prison. I didn’t think it was the best time to step in and say, ‘I think your counsel doesn’t know what they’re doing,’” she said.
“Looking back, there’s no question I should’ve come in this court room told your honor ‘There’s a huge problem,’” she said. “That’s my failure. I own it 100 percent.”
Ruffle repeatedly challenged Rancourt’s claims that the defense team erred in other ways, including not challenging the computer charge during the trial and not attempting to further damage the credibility of the girl and several of Labrie’s friends.
Ruffle said those decisions could have been part of a reasonable legal strategy. Her first witness, Carney’s co-counsel Samir Zaganjori, said further questioning of Labrie’s friends could have opened the door to evidence that might have hurt Labrie’s case.
Labrie’s current lawyer, Robin Melone, has said that Labrie 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.
Zaganjori said he believed the computer law applied because the school’s system allowed access to the internet.
“I believe we gave him a very strong defense,” he said.
On Thursday, however, Zaganjori said waiting to challenge the felony charge until after the verdict was not “ideal representation” but he said overall Labrie received effective counsel.