State supreme court reverses rape conviction for former deputy sheriff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/22/2017 4:04:19 PM

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a former Belknap County deputy sheriff convicted of sexually assaulting an inmate he was transporting to the state prison.

The court issued a decision Monday on the appeal of Ernest Justin Blanchette, 36, formerly of Franklin. Four justices agreed with Blanchette’s argument that 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 he transported to and from the prison.

Blanchette argued he wasn’t guilty of sexual assault because he was not employed by the New Hampshire State Prison for Women, and therefore didn’t have the authority to coerce her into having sex. The justices ruled the trial court should have granted Blanchette’s motion to dismiss.

Blanchette was originally convicted on one count of aggravated felonious sexual assault in April 2016, after a jury found he had used his authority as a law enforcement officer to coerce his victim into having sex. He admitted the encounter had taken place, but both he and the woman described the incident as consensual.

State prosecutors argued Blanchette had been grooming the inmate for months by giving her cigarettes and letting her use his cellphone. Furthermore, they argued, she was incapable of legally consenting as an inmate.

Judge Gillian Abramson agreed, giving Blanchette the maximum sentence. During his sentencing last year, she told him, “whether (the victim) was willing or not is completely irrelevant, legally and morally. Inmates are degraded enough by virtue of incarceration. By trading favors for sex, you degraded her even more.”

However, the state Supreme Court’s ruling hinged on whether prosecutors proved Blanchette was ordered to transport the victim – citing a state law that requires the defendant to have the authority over the victim by being employed at the jail or prison where the victim was imprisoned.

State attorneys argued the state prison had ordered Blanchette to transport the inmate, and as a result, he should be considered a prison employee.

Blanchette’s defense attorneys argued that Blanchette was an employee of the Belknap County Sheriff’s Department, not the jail or state prison. 

“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.

The justices urged New Hampshire lawmakers to clarify the law for future cases, saying that both the state and Blanchette’s defense had presented plausible arguments about the meaning of the law and the inclusion of the phrase “where the actor is employed.”

“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,” she wrote.

Blanchette is currently serving a 10- to 20-year sentence at the Maine State Prison and is registered as a lifetime sex offender.

The state has until May 25 to file a motion for reconsideration. Blanchette’s lawyer did not return a request for comment.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to clarify the Supreme Court’s ruling.

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