Judge clarifies that former sheriff’s deputy could be recharged

  • Former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette appears at his trial in Hillsborough County Superior Court North in Manchester on April 28, 2016. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy whose sexual assault trial resulted in a change to state law could be facing new charges.

Last fall, a Belknap County judge dismissed all charges against Ernest Justin Blanchette, who was accused of sexually assaulting a female inmate. The decision came after Blanchette’s conviction out of Hillsborough County – where he was found guilty of sexually assaulting another female inmate in a different jurisdiction – was overturned by the state’s highest court on a legal technicality.

However, Belknap County Superior Court Judge James O’Neill clarified on Friday that he had dismissed all charges against Blanchette without prejudice, meaning county prosecutors could re-file new charges at a later date, according to court documents.

Belknap Deputy County Attorney Adam Wood said Tuesday that his office is considering new charges.

“We’re looking at the case again, but haven’t made decisions at this time,” he said.

Last fall, O’Neill dismissed Blanchette’s charges because the state failed to name Blanchette’s employer. He ruled that a person’s employment at a correctional facility where the victim is incarcerated is a necessary element of each charge, and that county prosecutors failed to account for it.

But the state argued recently that dismissing cases with prejudice is only reserved for extraordinary circumstances and is unwarranted when no evidence of misconduct is presented.

On Friday, O’Neill agreed. “This Court found they (the indictments) were constitutionally deficient for failing to include all necessary elements of the defendant’s alleged crimes,” O’Neill wrote.

Blanchette’s case in Hillsborough County last year went all the way to the state’s Supreme Court.

Prosecutors said Blanchette had used his authority as a law enforcement officer to coerce his victim into having sex.

However, Blanchette argued the state failed to prove its case, as he was not working under the direction of either the Belknap County jail or the state prison at the time of the alleged crime; Blanchette was employed by the county sheriff’s office – and the law draws a clear distinction, his attorney Brad Davis said at the time.

The case inspired lawmakers to pass House Bill 1564 last year, which made it clear that people under law enforcement control cannot consent to sex.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)