Former sheriff’s deputy seeks to dismiss all pending sexual assault charges

  • Blanchette

Monitor staff
Monday, August 07, 2017

A former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy, whose rape conviction in Hillsborough County was overturned by the Supreme Court in May, is seeking the dismissal of nine other sexual assault charges in a different jurisdiction.

Ernest Justin Blanchette, 37, previously of Franklin, was released this past spring from a Maine prison, where he had been serving 10 to 20 years for aggravated felonious sexual assault. A jury found Blanchette guilty in April 2016 of sexually assaulting an inmate he was transporting to the New Hampshire State Prison for Women in Goffstown.

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.

On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in Blanchette’s favor. The high court concluded that Hillsborough County prosecutors presented insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Blanchette was working under the direction of the Belknap County jail or state prison, as required by law.

The justices’ ruling is likely to influence the outcome of four pending sexual assault cases against Blanchette in Belknap County Superior Court in Laconia, where the defense has filed a similar motion to dismiss all charges. Davis maintains that the nine pending indictments misstate the law, specifically in the context of Blanchette’s employment.

Blanchette stands accused of sexually assaulting an inmate he was transporting from the Belknap County jail to dentist appointments in Tilton in 2014 and 2015. He is also charged with coercing female inmates to engage in sexual acts with their respective male partners while he drove the transport vehicle.

Prosecutors allege Blanchette groomed the inmates, including by allowing them to use a cellphone to contact friends and family members. They allege those calls provided chances for inmates to meet up with sexual partners under Blanchette’s watch.

In a supplemental motion filed last week, Assistant Belknap County Attorney Adam Woods did not take a position on the defense’s motion to dismiss as it concerns six of the nine pending charges. Those six charges stem from sexual acts that Blanchette is accused of facilitating – but not directly participating in – during transit between a New Hampshire correctional facility and county courthouse.

In his explanation, Woods summarized a section of the Supreme Court’s order in which the justices note “the evidence at trial established that it was the direction of the trial court, not the correction institution, that the defendant was transporting the victim.”

Because Blanchette was transporting inmates by court order in a couple of the Belknap County cases, the same logic could be applied. If so, the trial judge could find that the defendant did not have authority over the victim by virtue of her being jailed at a correctional institution where he was employed.

Woods argues that the Supreme Court did not directly address whether the employment requirement under the statute applied to Blanchette in his role as a deputy sheriff; rather, the justices said only that the state had not presented sufficient evidence to prove Blanchette was employed by the correctional institution at issue.

The state continues to object to the defense’s motion to dismiss the three charges alleging Blanchette sexually assaulted an inmate he was transporting from the Belknap County jail to dentist appointments.

“Unlike the situation presented in the Hillsborough County case, it cannot be said that the defendant here was acting at the direction of any institution other than the correctional institution where (the victim) was incarcerated – the Belknap County House of Corrections,” he said.

A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 31 at 1:30 p.m. in Belknap County Superior Court.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)