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Court rejects appeal in rape case

CONCORD — The New Hampshire Supreme Court has rejected the appeal by Ernest Willis, 55, of his convictions for raping and impregnating a 15-year-old member of Trinity Baptist Church in Concord in 1997.

He was convicted of two charges of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one of felonious sexual assault at a jury trial in May 2011.

At the beginning of the trial, Willis had pleaded to one count of felonious sexual assault, contending it was the only sexual encounter and was consensual.

Willis is serving a 15-to-30-year sentence in the New Hampshire State Prison in Berlin. His maximum release date is May 20, 2031.

The former Gilford resident had argued in his appeal that his statements to his then-pastor, Charles Phelps, were privileged and thus Phelps should not have been allowed to testify at trial.

But the justices, in their unanimous opinion released Wednesday, said New Hampshire law bars religious privilege in child sexual assault cases.

The justices also said Willis' statements to Phelps, one to Phelps that he had been sexually involved with the teen on two occasions, and another later to Phelps while both men's wives were present, did not meet the standard of a confession for religious privilege status.

Willis had also argued that a portion of his recorded 2010 interview by Concord police should not have been played for jurors, saying comments made by questioners were prejudicial.

The justices said the warnings given jurors about those statements were sufficient protection.

The two encounters for which Willis was convicted were in 1997, but although Phelps said he reported them to police and the Division for Children, Youth and Families at the time, the investigation stalled after the victim was sent to Colorado to live with a family who were church members.

The investigation restarted in 2010 when a former member of the church posted a message about the case on Facebook. The victim, now married with a family and living in a western state, testified at Willis' 2011 trial in Concord.

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