- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - A prep school graduate convicted of using a computer to lure an underage girl for sex returned to court Tuesday for a hearing on whether his lawyers damaged his case.

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 a felony computer charge requiring him to register as a sex offender for life.

Labrie, now 21, is free while he appeals his conviction and seeks a new trial. The appeal to the state Supreme Court is on hold. The request for a new trial based on ineffective counsel was the subject of Tuesday’s hearing in Merrimack County Superior Court.

The hearing, expected to last four days, began with an attorney who served as local counsel to Labrie’s out-of-state defense team describing how she was virtually shut out of the case.

Attorney Jaye Rancourt testified she expected to be an active participant but was told not to review pre-trial evidence, was not included in the defense strategy and was not consulted about state law and court procedures.

She broke down in tears after describing an “unsettling” conversation she witnessed between lead attorney J.W. Carney Jr. and the defense’s DNA expert, saying it was clear Carney had not bothered to meet the expert before trial.

“That was possibly the most terrifying moment of my career. I was sitting in that room thinking, ‘I’m going to have to go in that courtroom and interrupt a trial and step in and say I can’t let it go on,’” said Rancourt, who’s representing Labrie on his appeal. “Looking back at the red flags, I saw the problems. I saw I should’ve stepped in. I should’ve inserted myself.”

Labrie’s attorney at the hearing, Robin Melone, argues the trial lawyers were ineffective because they failed to challenge the computer charge, which stems from a 1998 law targeting those who “knowingly utilizes a computer on-line service, internet service, or local bulletin board service” to lure a child for sex.

Melone said the charge is unsupported because emails Labrie exchanged with the girl never left the school’s intranet server, which is not an online or internet service.

Prosecutor Catherine Ruffle, in her written response before the hearing, argued the law was enacted at the start of wider public use and acceptance of the internet and it’s unreasonable to think intranet communications were exempt.

Though Carney has asked a judge to set aside the guilty verdict on the computer charge, he has said it never occurred to him that it was an issue worth exploring before the trial.

Melone also argues the defense didn’t investigate the girl’s social media accounts and statements she made to her dorm adviser or further question her testimony.

Rancourt said case files she received from Carney when she took on Labrie’s appeal included emails that appeared to contradict the girl’s claims that she ignored or turned down Senior Salute requests from other students and that after she was assaulted by Labrie she was so sore she had difficulty walking or sitting. Rancourt described one email that included photos of the girl jumping on a trampoline, doing a split in mid-air, the next day.

Carney wrote “there is no template” for handling such a witness, saying he needed to raise serious concerns for the jury about her credibility “but not come across as a bully and engender sympathy for her.” He said he was careful on cross-examination not to open the doors for the prosecution to introduce evidence.

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