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Judge seeks High Court’s opinion on critical issue in former deputy’s case

  • Former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette appears at his trial in Hillsborough County Superior Court on April 28, 2016. Blanchette was convicted of raping a female inmate en route to prison last summer. Monitor file

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 8/11/2021 7:46:53 PM

A judge has denied the request of a former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy to reconsider an earlier decision that he should stand trial on charges that he allegedly sexually assaulted an inmate. But the judge believes a critical aspect of the case should be submitted to the state Supreme Court for clarification.

Superior Court Judge James D. O’Neill III concluded that the question of whether Ernest Blanchette met the legal definition of an employee of the Belknap County House of Correction at the time of the alleged assault is an issue the Supreme Court should have the opportunity to weigh in on before proceeding any further with the case.

The ruling was contained in an order O’Neill issued Aug. 2.

Blanchette, 41, is charged with raping a female inmate as he was transporting the woman back to the Belknap County House of Correction from a dental appointment in 2014. He is charged with two counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault, and one charge of felonious sexual assault.

Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois, the prosecutor in the case, has argued in court pleadings that Blanchette should be considered “‘employed’ under the (sexual assault) statute if he acts ‘as an agent of the correctional institution.’”

Blanchette was employed by the Sheriff’s Department as a deputy sheriff and so was not on the county Correction Department’s payroll. However, under a longstanding, informal agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and the Corrections Department, sheriff’s deputies are responsible for transporting county inmates to and from a variety of appointments, including health-care sessions.

Blanchette has argued the current case is improper based on the state Supreme Court’s 2017 decision which overturned his conviction on a similar charge in Hillsborough County.

Blanchette maintains that because, in that decision, the Supreme Court asked the Legislature to correct the ambiguity in the law as it pertains to employment, that law must therefore be considered unconstitutionally vague.

The Supreme Court’s rules allow it to hear appeals in certain instances while other aspects of the case are still proceeding. However, the court has the option to take up the request – called an interlocutory appeal – or not.

“The court concludes that an interlocutory appeal is appropriate to clarify further proceedings in this case,” O’Neill wrote. “The state intended to introduce evidence showing that the defendant was acting at the direction of a correctional institution. (However), the defendant’s interpretation would render the statute inapplicable even where the defendant acted at the direction of a correctional institution,” he stated.

O’Neill gave both sides 45 days to submit a joint appeal statement to the court. If they are unable to agree on a statement each can submit its own statement and a further hearing might be held if O’Neill thought that would be appropriate.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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