Reporter Susan Zalkind’s ride on the Red Line started out like any other. A man with a Rubik’s cube was screaming, people were swearing, a man’s arm got caught in the door, dragging him along as the whole train erupted in chaos. It was then that Zalkind saw a familiar face; Owen Labrie, the 20 year-old convicted sex offender and former prefect at St. Paul's prep school in New Hampshire, whose trial Zalkind had covered for weeks. “Finally, it calms down a bit, and there’s just the one man with the Rubik’s cube, screaming, and I introduce myself,” Zalkind said in an interview with Boston Public Radio. “I said hello, Owen, I kind of have to introduce myself, I’m a reporter, I’ve covered your trial for Vice [News]. I did that, and I kind of waited to see where it would go from there.”
Zalkind expected Labrie to recoil and dismiss her, but he didn’t. “He moved over very politely, so I could sit down, and so there I am sitting down next to him...and I asked him what he was up to, where is [was] going,” she said.
At the end of his senior year, Labrie participated in the ‘Senior Salute,’ a school hookup ritual in which seniors try to have sex with a list of underclassmen before graduation. Labrie invited a 15 year-old underclassman to engage in what she later described as rape. Following his trial, he was convicted for three misdemeanor statutory rape charges, a charge of endangering a child, and a felony computer charge. Labrie was sentenced to a year in jail and registered as a sex offender.
At the time of his run-in with Zalkind, Labrie was out on bail, waiting for an appeal. His bail conditions required him to be home in Vermont before 8am, and after 5pm. According to Zalkind’s interview, Labrie was visiting his girlfriend in Cambridge. “I saw him in the middle of the afternoon, sometime before 1:30,” she said. “At the time, he was worried, because the train was stopped, because of this guy with his arm stuck, so he was worried about making curfew, but at the time it was conceivable to me that he would make it on time. I didn’t report that he had broken his curfew, it didn’t raise eyebrows to me that he had, it might have been a tight call, but that’s not what my story was about.”
Zalkind tweeted out a few quotes from her interview, wrote up a piece for Vice News, and waited for reactions. One unexpected response came from a detective from the police force in New Hampshire, Julie Curtin. Curtin launched a full-scale investigation which revealed that Labrie had been making a habit of violating his curfew. After an expedited hearing, Labrie's bail was revoked and the 20 year-old was sent to jail. In a later piece for Vice, Zalkind wrote, “Suddenly I found myself thrust into the story in a way I'd never experienced as a professional journalist... I was now a part of this story that had fascinated me—and much of America—amid an intense national conversation about sexual assault.”
That larger question—how any of this happened in the first place— is what Zalkind said fascinated her about covering the trial.
“Sex games aside, it was a really interesting case,” Zalkind said. “It was a really interesting time to be looking at sexual assault cases and sexual assault trials. It was the issue of ritualized objectification of young girls, and there’s also an issue of what rape is.”
According to Zalkind, New Hampshire is unique in that non-forcible rape laws are a part of the statute. “So you can charge someone with rape, even if the accuser doesn’t make any claims to have been kicking or screaming, and doesn’t make any claims that the person they said was raping them threatened them in any way,” she said. “The issue that was at stake here is if the victim made it clear to Owen Labrie that she did not give her consent. She says she held her underwear and said ‘no’ three times, which to some would be a pretty clear indicator, but then later she was very apologetic, self-blaming, and there could be a number of reasons for that, but later she told the police that she wasn’t 100 percent sure if Owen Labrie knew that she did not consent. She didn’t clock him in the face with her fist. She says she froze at that point.”
Suddenly I found myself thrust into the story in a way I'd never experienced as a professional journalist... I was now a part of this story that had fascinated me—and much of America—amid an intense national conversation about sexual assault.
“So there’s an issue here, that we’re moving forward to some extent, I think the American Law Institute is trying to re-address the penal code to maybe include affirmative consent,” Zalkind said. “So if the issue here was, did she say yes, I want to have sex with you, he might have been facing actual, may have been convicted on the felony assault charges.”
The larger issue this case represents, Zalkind says, is that current laws regarding rape just don’t match up with the standard cultural definition of what rape technically is. “How do you prove what happened between two people in a dark room, when it’s one person’s word against the others?” She said. “The actual charges that stuck, the misdemeanor charge the computer charge, having sex with a 15 year-old when you’re 18, don’t intuitively make sense, necessarily. Opponents of his conviction, or critics, would say, this is ridiculous, he was a senior, she was a freshman, he wasn’t convicted of the felony assault, he wasn’t convicted of rape. Other people say these charges, which are so difficult to get a conviction of, would never have been brought up at all if there wasn’t such substantial evidence that it was a felony rape.”
Susan Zalkind is a Boston-based freelance journalist. She has reported for The Guardian, Boston.com, The Daily Beast, Vice News, Boston Magazine, and WBEZ’s This American Life. To hear her full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.