Unless you have been on a remote Pacific island, incommunicado, over the last few months, you have likely heard of the case involving Owen Labrie, a 19-year-old, alumnus of the elite St. Paul’s School, in New Hampshire, who stood accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old student when Labrie was an 18-year-old senior at the school.
At the conclusion of the August trial, the jury convicted Labrie of five counts in connection with the alleged incident, but it acquitted him of the most serious charges. In the end, Labrie was found guilty of three counts of misdemeanor sexual assault, using a computer to lure a minor for sex, and child endangerment. With its verdict, the jury appeared to believe the claim that intercourse occurred, but it dismissed the accuser’s and prosecution’s claim that it was against the alleged victim’s will.
Most significant about this case was the fact, that during the investigation leading up to the case, police obtained 12,000 pages of Facebook data. From this horde of evidence, jurors were presented with a perplexing and often contradictory picture from Facebook messages exchanged between the two parties and posted publicly on the platform. Given the disputed facts surrounding the issue of consent, this evidence provided a window into some of the nuances of an already tangled mess of facts and in other instances created even more confusion.
Suffice to say, this was not a clear case of predator and victim. As such, the defense and prosecution shoehorned their arguments to suit these social media exchanges. The defense presented Labrie as a boy playing up his sexual exploits to his friends by bragging that he had intercourse with the girl, in some misguided effort to impress them. Also puzzling, and damaging, was the fact he admitted to deleting 119 Facebook messages, including one in which he boasted that he “pulled every trick in the book” to have sex with the alleged victim.
Further evidence was taken from Social media exchanges made at Facebook between Labrie and the alleged victim before the assault which were suggested to be saccharine exchanges between a newly-minted teenage couple. From these conversations, the alleged victim was presented as someone who seemed to a willing participant at first, but was now merely putting up a façade to cope with her regrets and the fallout from the encounter. The alleged victim stated she kept the Facebook conversation light because she was trying to find out whether he had worn a condom and, according to the prosecution, was motivated by her desire not to offend Labrie.
According to prosecution expert Dr. Carlos Cuevas, this response is consistent with sexual assault in that, “A lot of people do think if someone is sexually assaulted, here’s what it should look like, there’s a certain reaction…Expectations of what survivors should or shouldn’t look like or should or shouldn’t do miss the true nature of the impact of sexual assault.” In the end, the prosecution presented the narrative that the content of her exchanges with Labrie on Facebook was influenced by not wanting to rock the boat or offend anyone.
Ultimately social media evidence did little to bolster either case definitively. Rather this evidence may have generated doubt among the jury that likely precipitated the acquittals on the most serious charges, yet also led to convictions on some of the lesser charges.