Former Belknap County deputy sheriff Ernest Justin Blanchette is handcuffed before leaving court following a pronouncement of guilt Thursday. (Gail Ober photo/Laconia Daily Sun)
By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MANCHESTER — After deliberating for just 90 minutes, a nine-man three-woman jury found former Belknap County Sheriffs Deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette guilty of aggravated felonious sexual assault Thursday in connection with his conduct with an inmate he was transporting.
Blanchette, 36, was taken into custody and remanded to jail to await sentencing. Though he has posted $100,000 cash bail, the law says that a person convicted of aggravated felonious sexual assault cannot be free on bail to await sentencing.
Blanchette faces 10 to 20 years in prison and will be sentenced at a later date.
Blanchette was accused of felonious sexual assault when he took a female inmate to an abandoned house in Bedford on July 2, 2014, on their way to the women's prison in Goffstown.
After hearing testimony from the Bedford detective and seeing his taped interview with Blanchette in his sheriff's uniform on July 10, 2015, both sides rested their cases. Defense attorney Brad Davis did not put on a defense, relying instead on forcing the state to meet the burden of proving the case "beyond a reasonable doubt."
In his close, Davis told the jury that Blanchette had been seduced by "B.H." who is a "career criminal" whom his client was transporting from Belknap County Superior Court to the New Hampshire State Prison for Women in Goffstown on July 2, 2015.
He agreed Blanchette made a bad choice that has cost him his job, his career and his marriage, but told the jury that "He is not a criminal."
He wanted the jury to remember that B.H. picked out the place in Bedford where they had sex, that she wanted him to go there and she wanted to have sex with him. He told the jury that B.H. was engaged and almost married at the time and she, too, had committed adultery.
Davis said that when asked if she felt she had a choice, she said "I felt like I had a choice. He didn't force me." He said she testified that she may have dropped hints to him during the transport and he eventually admitted to a Bedford detective that he took her to the house.
He reminded the jury of her letters to her friend from jail, letters that she didn't know he had, that her tone changed as he read aloud selected passages in which she told her friends about the possibility of a big payout from the county from a civil suit and how she bragged about having sex with a sheriff while in jail.
He also reminded them of the conversation she had with a girlfriend who challenged her suit against the county and how B.H.'s reply was that he was "(expletive) sexy" and she wanted to have sex with him.
"Let's get one thing straight," countered Hillsborough County Assistant Attorney Michael Zaino. "He was in control of every action."
Zaino said B.H. was shackled, under the control of a uniformed police officer who wore a gun and a badge and had no options.
"Her only obligation is to submit to authority," he said. "It's his way or no way."
Zaino asked rhetorically about who guards the guardians. He said Blanchette chose his profession and took it upon himself to place himself in control, and that control comes with a "the price of a higher standard." He told the jury it was their role to guard the guardians.
He said Blanchette took actions knowingly; that while Davis tried to make the trial about the victim, it was actually about Blanchette and what he did, not what B.H. did. He said the coercion doesn't have to be overt, that it can be subtle, but it was nevertheless power over an inmate. Zaino said Blanchette admitted to his wife that he kept cigarettes he had taken from others so he could use them to get people to comply – "To do what he wants."
That he allowed B.H. to use his cell phone and occasionally sit in the front of the transport van were additional subtle coercion methods. Zaino said it was Blanchette who took down his pants first and B.H. knew what she had to do.
He described B.H. as particularly vulnerable as she was sentenced to a prison term that was twice as long as she had expected.
"A mess," he said, noting that she couldn't care for her very ill son, turned to alcohol and drugs after he was sent to a pediatric hospital, and now she lives that reality.
He said that on July 2, 2015, B.H. saw in Blanchette a "ray of sunshine." She had had cigarettes and cell phone use from him before and he agreed to come back and transport her on a holiday weekend and against the wishes of Blanchette's wife and family.
"He manipulated her," Zaino said. "Her manipulating him is ridiculous."
He said B.H. testified that she didn't tell on Blanchette because she thought she would get in trouble. "It's common sense. She was in an institution. She does what she's told."
But out of the earshot of the jury, the trial almost turned on what seems to be an omission in the law. At the close of testimony, both sides agreed that the court is the sentencing authority and it had sentenced B.H. to serve two to four years in the N.H. State Women's Prison in Goffstown.
Both sides agreed that once she was sentenced, she became an inmate of the state prison system. They both agreed the sheriff's departments are charged by law with transporting prisoners from place to place.
The question was whether the law adequately identifies whether Blanchette was in the employ of the Corrections Department when the sexual encounter in Bedford occurred. The law mentions only corrections officers in one section and parole and probation officers in another.
Davis brought up the issue of employment in a motion to dismiss the case because the state didn't prove Blanchette was employed by the Department of Corrections and that it didn't prove coercion.
Judge Gillian Abramson said she felt the state had proved enough coercion, "no matter how subtle," to allow the jury to decide.
There was a fourth point of judicial notice – or what the judge tells the jury – regarding whether Blanchette was employed by the Department of Corrections.
But when Abramson asked Davis if he had done any research on the legislative intent behind the stature, his answer in the negative invoked her wrath.
"Well, I have," she said, waving her pages of research in her hand. She told Davis that she expected both sides to do their research during the lunch break while she considered if she would rule on the matter and whether she would include it in her jury instructions.
In her order, she said the issue of employment should have been raised earlier either in the trial or in pre-trial motions, and that "It needs to be addressed by the legislature."
Since it's not, she went to the plain meaning of the word "employed" and said that Black's Law Dictionary defines it as one who is "paid wages or benefits" or "to engage the services of." She said that other courts have rules that "statutory authority (over someone)" and "recognizing an inherent coercive relationship" was enough for her to not dismiss the case on those grounds.
But she declined to include it in her jury instructions and said if she was overturned by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, that would be fine, too.
"I won't take judicial notice and I'm not going to put my finger on the scales of justice any more," she said.
Davis is likely to appeal, and asked the judge to throw out the verdict. Abramson denied his motion.
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