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Child rapist Denis Gagne pleads guilty to another 1989 crime

  • Denis Gagne pleads guilty in Merrimack County Superior Court to rape charges dating from 1989; Wednesday, March 13, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Denis Gagne pleads guilty in Merrimack County Superior Court to rape charges dating from 1989; Wednesday, March 13, 2013.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Denis Gagne pleads guilty in Merrimack County Superior Court to rape charges dating from 1989; Wednesday, March 13, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Denis Gagne pleads guilty in Merrimack County Superior Court to rape charges dating from 1989; Wednesday, March 13, 2013.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Denis Gagne pleads guilty in Merrimack County Superior Court to rape charges dating from 1989; Wednesday, March 13, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • Denis Gagne pleads guilty in Merrimack County Superior Court to rape charges dating from 1989; Wednesday, March 13, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

Merrimack County prosecutors abandoned an attempt to hold a child rapist past the end of his sentence yesterday because the man pleaded guilty to another crime dating to 1989.

Denis Gagne, whose sentence for raping two young girls nearly 25 years ago will run out in June, admitted in Merrimack County Superior Court to another assault on one of those victims. He was sentenced to serve up to seven more years in prison, and he’ll be eligible for parole in two years.

But equally important, according to prosecutors, was 64-year-old Gagne’s agreement to remain under supervision by the Department of Corrections for the rest of his life.

That provision wouldn’t have been imposed if prosecutors were unsuccessful in their other option: convicting Gagne under a state law that allows sexually violent predators to be held for treatment after their sentence runs out. Prosecutors – who initiated that process in July 2012 and dropped it yesterday – would have needed to prove under the law that Gagne has a mental abnormality making him dangerous and likely to re-offend.

If a jury disagreed, though, Gagne would have been released into the community with no oversight.

“We had to make a decision, really, what was the best way to go for public safety,” Merrimack County Attorney Scott Murray said. “We didn’t want to take a chance with it. If you go through with the (sexually violent predator) process and you don’t get a favorable finding, he just walks out the door.”

Gagne’s own admission

The crime Gagne was convicted of yesterday came to light by Gagne’s own admission, according to Murray, who declined to elaborate. Kristin Vartanian, who prosecuted both of Gagne’s recent cases, said at the plea and sentencing hearing that Gagne met the victim in the newest indictment through the girl’s mother.

Gagne and the woman worked together, and the mother allowed him to be left alone with her daughters, Vartanian said. According to the indictment, the now 30-year-old victim was 7 when Gagne raped her during August or September of 1989 in Franklin.

In 1991 he was found guilty of raping that girl and also another girl. But he was released in 1995 – just a few years into a 15- to 30-year sentence – when the state’s Supreme Court overturned his convictions because his lawyers hadn’t been provided evidence questioning the credibility of a Franklin police officer who had investigated his case.

Gagne’s case was sent back to Merrimack County Superior Court, where he pleaded guilty to the crimes and agreed to a sentence that was deferred with two years of probation. But Gagne was arrested in 1997 for sexual assault, and his suspended sentence was imposed.

Knowing that sentence would soon expire, prosecutors filed the sexually violent predator petition last year.

‘Guilty’

Gagne, who is mute and nearly deaf, spoke yesterday through a device, his hand hovering over the buttons on a keyboard that caused a flat “yes” or “no” to play through a speaker. Judge Richard McNamara shouted from the bench to ensure Gagne could hear him, but at times the judge still seemed unsure whether Gagne fully understood what he was agreeing to.

“Other than the terms of the plea agreement, have you been promised anything to plead guilty today?” McNamara asked.

After a few moments, Gagne pressed a button and answered “Yes.” His attorneys leaned in, trying to clarify.

“Did somebody give you money?” defense attorney Anthony Sculimbrene said into Gagne’s ear, in an unsuccessful attempt to whisper.

Sculimbrene wrote something down and showed it to Gagne, who then answered the judge by hitting the button for “No.”

After McNamara asked Gagne how he wished to plead, a faint click came through the speaker as the man hit each key. The machine relayed the monotone response.

“Guilty.”

At minimum, Gagne’s sentence will keep him incarcerated for two more years, but Murray said yesterday that “given his track record,” prosecutors expect he’ll serve the full sentence. If Gagne does “max out” on the new sentence, prosecutors agreed yesterday not to initiate another civil commitment process before his release.

But if Gagne is then convicted of another offense and is sentenced to jail time, the county attorney’s office would be permitted to try again for a civil commitment before that sentence expires, Vartanian said. She said prosecutors could also initiate another civil commitment suit if Gagne is released on probation before the end of his sentence and commits a violation.

Predator law

The state’s sexually violent predator law went into effect in 2007. But the avenue is complicated and rarely taken by prosecutors. (Currently only two people have been committed under the law, and one agreed to the terms without going through a jury trial.)

Before prosecutors can file a petition with the court, the law requires that the offender be assessed by a team of licensed psychiatrists and psychologists who specialize in sex offender diagnosis and treatment. The committee reviews, among other things, the prisoner’s criminal background and treatment history, including whether they’ve partaken in sex offender treatment while incarcerated.

Prosecutors can file the petition if the group agrees the person fits the parameters of a sexually violent predator and is likely to re-offend if not confined. If a judge then finds probable cause – which happened in Gagne’s case – the prisoner can be held after their release date, pending a jury trial.

A conviction results in the person being treated for up to five years at the state prison’s secure psychiatric unit. But the counseling is voluntary, and prosecutors can seek further commitment in five-year increments if they believe the person remains a sexually violent predator.

Vartanian listed a long criminal history for Gagne yesterday that dates back to 1966 and includes offenses ranging from grand theft auto in California to a 1984 rape in Massachusetts.

If Gagne had not pleaded guilty yesterday to the aggravated felonious sexual assault and the case had gone to trial, he would have faced a possible sentence of 71∕2 to 15 years.

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or
tnadolny@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @tricia_nadolny.)

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