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Last charges dropped against deputy sprung from 20-year rape sentence by NH Supreme Court

By BEA LEWIS
Union Leader Correspondent

October 20. 2017 4:38PM
Ex-Deputy Sheriff Ernest “Justin” Blanchette confers with his attorney, Brad Davis, during a hearing in Belknap County Superior Court. A judge has dismissed the remaining charges the law enforcement officer faced for having sex with prisoners in his custody. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

LACONIA – A judge has dismissed the remaining rape charges pending against a former Belknap County deputy sheriff.

Ernest “Justin” Blanchette, 37, formerly of Franklin, had been serving a 10- to 20-year state prison sentence after a jury in Hillsborough Superior Court North found him guilty of aggravated felonious sexual assault. He was released from the Thomaston State Prison in Maine in May after the New Hampshire Supreme Court overturned the conviction on a technicality, the wording of a state statute.

At trial, a jury found Blanchette coerced an inmate entrusted to his care into having sex in an abandoned house during a prisoner transfer from Belknap County Superior Court to the New Hampshire State Prison for Women in Goffstown.

Similar indictments were returned in Belknap County charging that Blanchette used his position of authority over inmates there as well and engaged in sexual contact with them while transporting them to court hearings or dental appointments.

All of the indictments were based on a state law that specifies that a person is guilty of sexual assault when the actor has direct supervisory authority over the victim by virtue of the victim being incarcerated in a correctional facility where the actor is employed.

In dismissing the pending case against Blanchette, Judge James D. O’Neill III ruled employment at the correctional institution where the victim inmate was held is a necessary element of the offenses charged.

“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,” wrote Judge O’Neill in an eight-page order dated Oct. 17.

In his opinion, O’Neill also noted that the indictments also did not include any factual allegation as to the identity of the defendant’s employer at the time the alleged sexual assaults occurred.

“Therefore it is immaterial whether the state can present sufficient evidence of employment at trial, because the indictments are constitutionally deficient for failing to include all necessary elements of the defendant’s alleged crimes,” O’Neill wrote.

“Regardless of the ultimate meaning of the term “employment” within the statutory language, the indictments at issue in this case fail to allege, under any plausible interpretation of the phase, that the defendant was employed by the correctional institution where the alleged victims were held,” the ruling says.

After the Supreme Court overturned the Hillsborough County conviction, then Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen believed the ruling was not fatal to the charges pending in the Laconia court.

“My perspective is our charges are different enough that the order doesn’t actual impact our case,” she said, predicting the defense would file a motion to dismiss citing the high court’s order.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, has said correcting language in a state law regarding the penalties for sexual assault of prisoners in the custody of state or county officials will be a top priority in the next legislative session.


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