All sex assault charges against former sheriff’s deputy dismissed by judge

  • Former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette appears at his trial in Hillsborough County Superior Court North in Manchester on Thursday, April 28, 2016. Blanchette is accused of raping a female inmate en route to prison last summer. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Thursday, October 26, 2017

A judge has dismissed all remaining sexual assault charges against a former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy, although the case may not be over.

Assistant Belknap County Attorney Adam Woods said prosecutors are reviewing the latest Belknap County Superior Court order, a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision overturning Ernest Justin Blanchette’s rape conviction in Hillsborough County, and both case files to determine how they’ll proceed.

“We haven’t made any determination yet as to what our next step is going to be,” Woods told the Monitor on Wednesday.

Prosecutors have several options before them; they could file new charges against Blanchette, ask a Belknap County Superior Court judge to reconsider his ruling, or forward the case to the state attorney general’s office in preparation for a Supreme Court appeal. Woods declined to say what options the office is considering and if other legal avenues exist.

Blanchette, 37, formerly of Franklin, was serving a 10- to 20-year prison sentence for rape when the state’s highest court overturned the conviction on a legal technicality. They called upon the Legislature to clarify the aggravated felonious sexual assault statute for future cases, citing ambiguities in the existing language.

The court issued its decision as several sexual assault charges were still pending against Blanchette in Belknap County Superior Court, alleging similar crimes.

Prosecutors in both counties said Blanchette had used his position of authority to coerce female inmates into having sex with him during transport. However, defense attorney Brad Davis argued that prosecutors had improperly charged Blanchette under the statute and, further, failed to present sufficient evidence that he was working for a correctional facility.

According to state statute, inmates can’t legally consent to sex with someone who has authority over them by virtue of being “employed” at the correctional facility. While the law specifically cites correctional officers and probation parole officers, it does not name sheriffs and other law enforcement officials, Davis noted previously.

Blanchette’s motion to dismiss the nine indictments pending against him in Belknap County was on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision on his appeal in Hillsborough County. Three months after winning that appeal, attorneys were back before Belknap County Superior Court Judge James O’Neill III to revisit the future of the four unresolved cases.

Woods said during that August hearing that the Legislature intended to criminalize all sexual contact between inmates and those in positions of “supervisory or disciplinary authority over them,” both inside and outside the walls of a correctional institution. Further, he said, Blanchette may not have received a paycheck from the county jail, but that doesn’t absolve him of criminal liability.

In granting Blanchette’s motion to dismiss, O’Neill 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. None of the indictments name Blanchette’s employer.

“Between the defendant’s four pending cases, not one of his indictments make any reference to the defendant being an ‘employee’ or being ‘entrusted with the performance of an act’ by a correctional institution where an alleged victim was held,” O’Neill ruled.

He further called the indictments “constitutionally deficient for failing to include all necessary elements of the defendant’s alleged crimes.”

At the direction of the state’s Supreme Court, lawmakers are already prioritizing an amendment to the aggravated felonious sexual assault statute. State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, put forward a proposed bill that removes the phrase “where the actor is employed.”

The bill also includes new language to clarify that the law is applicable to anyone in a supervisory role, regardless of whether they’re employed by a state prison, county jail or other law enforcement agency.

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