Mimesis Law
27 January 2022

Owen Labrie’s Risky and Inconvenient Right to Trial

Nov. 6, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — If they gave out awards for banal headlines, a recent ABC News article entitled “Convicted Prep School Grad Had Nixed Lighter Sentence Deals” would have to win something. If you think about it, after all, the whole point of plea bargaining pretty much guarantees that’ll be the case anytime someone loses at trial. It’s rare in most cases for there not to be an offer, and the point of the offer is that it provides a lighter sentence than a trial loss. If someone goes to trial and loses, there’s a very good chance the person nixed a deal that would’ve resulted in a more favorable sentence. The headline is a truism.

Luckily, the case is more interesting than the headline might suggest:

A graduate of an exclusive New England prep school convicted of sexually assaulting a younger student rejected a string of plea deals that would have meant far less jail time and no registration as a sex offender.

In addition to a year in county jail and lifetime sex offender registration, Owen Labrie of Tunbridge, Vermont, was sentenced Thursday to five years’ probation on misdemeanor sex assault charges and a felony conviction of using a computer to lure a 15-year-old girl for sex.

Merrimack County Attorney Scott Murray, whose office prosecuted the case, said Friday that he believes the most recent deal offered to the 20-year-old Labrie called for a 30-day sentence.

Labrie’s lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., said he wouldn’t characterize the sentence handed down Thursday as harsh when compared to state prison, and he defended Labrie’s rejection of prior plea deals negotiated by a succession of lawyers.

“One of the reasons Owen changed counsel is he wanted to make his own decision on what was best for him,” Carney said.

Andrew Cotrupi, a Hampton defense attorney not involved in the case, said, “Clearly, in hindsight, that was a mistake.”

While the fact he rejected an offer that was better than what he got losing at trial is probably not terribly newsworthy, just how much better off he would have been might be just the sort of thing the news should report a little more often. People tend to have an unrealistic view of the system, and that applies to defendants too. They get trial psychosis. They’re certain they’re going to win when in fact there’s a real chance they’ll lose. There almost always is; the system is pretty much designed that way.

If more defendants knew just how much worse it can be at trial, and just how often people find themselves taxed for going to trial, people who really should consider a plea offer might be more inclined to do so. A huge part of me hates the idea of pressuring people to plead, but it really is the best option in many cases. Labrie might’ve been a narcissist or borderline personality hell bent on convincing a jury of his lies. He also might’ve been a kid who didn’t give the cost-benefit analysis of trial versus plea the weight he should have. Maybe some other teen will wisely plead knowing Labrie didn’t and is now doing a year instead of thirty days and will have to register as a sex offender.

Also, Labrie’s lawyer’s comment defending what Labrie did may seem sort of curious, but it reflects the measured approach a good defense attorney should take under the circumstances. Most defense attorneys have been fired by a client who didn’t like advice suggesting they consider a plea. If you don’t like the news, change the messenger, right?

You can give perfectly good advice to a client about pleading, just like Labrie’s prior lawyers probably did, yet it can still irreparably fracture the relationship. The next lawyer isn’t a bad guy or an enabler. Most defense attorneys have taken over cases in that situation too. It’s tempting to push a client into what you think is the best course of action, but appreciating the client’s autonomy is just as crucial a part of the relationship. Labrie’s choice to go to trial might have been a mistake, but it was his to make.

Another part of the article is worrisome due to its implications regarding Labrie’s right to a trial:

The girl, in a videotaped victim-impact statement played in court Thursday, spoke of how depressed she was after Labrie rejected the deals that would have kept her off the witness stand during trial.

“That really pushed me down and led me to believe I didn’t deserve to live,” said the girl, who turned 17 this week. Labrie was 18 when the assault occurred May 30, 2014, at St. Paul’s School in Concord.

Even when it’s exactly what they’re doing, people in the system usually don’t come out and say they’re punishing defendants for going to trial. Victims aren’t so well-trained, and their impact statements almost always mention the stress trial and even the stress of thinking about trial causes them. It’s something everyone has surely known about all along.

Now, though, our exaltation of victims seems to have made us especially affected by it. The fact that judges are even being asked to consider at sentencing the harmful effect a defendant’s exercise of his most fundamental right has on the victim is a sad indicator of the esteem we give that right.

Silly title aside, the article provides some food for thought when it comes to the way the system works. The exact price attached to a particular defendant’s decision to assert his right to trial is something worth knowing. The fact that the price might be greater simply by virtue of a necessary part of exercising that right is too. If more people realized just how risky an endeavor trial was, they might realize how compromised the right is.

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  • Redefining Rape: Prosecuting Teens For Sex We Don’t Like
    10 November 2015 at 8:45 am - Reply

    […] no consent, as well as his belief Labrie lied. Instead of sentencing him for what he did, the judge punished him for going to trial and punished him for what the judge thought he did. Even though the jury found there was consent, […]

  • The Posts at Mimesis Law Continue | Tempe Criminal Defense
    20 November 2015 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    […] Trial is risky. […]