Blanchette case spurs legislation to strengthen N.H. sex assault laws

  • Former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette appears in Belknap County Superior Court in Laconia on Wednesday, Aug, 30, 2017. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Lawmakers may consider a bill next session that would close a loophole in one of New Hampshire’s sexual assault laws.

State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, put forward the proposed bill after the state’s Supreme Court overturned former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette’s rape conviction in May, citing ambiguities in the aggravated felonious sexual assault statute. In their decision, the justices urged the Legislature to clarify the law for future cases.

Cushing said the law needs to be tightened to ensure that people who transport inmates to and from a correctional facility can’t escape prosecution for having sex with prisoners under their control.

“The idea is that anyone who has control over a prisoner can just stop and have sex along the way and not be criminally liable for that is just ridiculous,” Cushing said. “Being raped by a member of law enforcement is not part of anyone’s sentence – and that’s what this bill will make clear.”

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.

Cushing’s proposed bill removes the phrase “where the actor is employed” from the statute. Further, it includes new language stressing that the law is applicable to anyone in a supervisory role, regardless of whether they’re employed by the state’s Department of Corrections, a county jail or other law enforcement agency.

The LSR, or legislative service request, has already received bipartisan support, including from Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, who told the Monitor he had planned to file a similar bill, but will instead co-sponsor Cushing’s proposal. After the Supreme Court ruling in Blanchette, “I think people were scratching their heads, saying, ‘how could this happen,’ ” Bradley said.

On appeal, Blanchette argued that Hillsborough County prosecutors failed to prove he was working under the direction of either the Belknap Country jail or the New Hampshire State Prison for Women when he had sex with an inmate during transport.

State prosecutors disagreed, saying the woman was incapable of consenting as an inmate. Furthermore, they argued, Blanchette had been grooming her for months by giving her cigarettes and letting her use a phone.

The higher court sided with Blanchette in a ruling handed down this spring.

“We conclude that the state presented insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had authority over the victim by virtue of the victim being incarcerated in a correctional institution where the defendant was employed,” the justices wrote.

They continued, “Although we have resolved the present appeal without addressing the merits of the parties’ interpretations of the statutory language, the disagreement persists: accordingly, we invite the legislature to amend the language in (the law) to clarify its intent with regard to the meaning of the phrase at issue.”

Blanchette was released from prison following the decision, but his court battle continues. Similar sexual assault charges are still pending against him in Belknap County Superior Court, where a ruling on his motion to dismiss is imminent. Attorneys for both sides argued the motion in August.

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