Blanchette found guilty - Defense blamed victim for encouraging sexual conduct, jury found former deputy sheriff had raped inmate in his care

04-29 Blanchette 2

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.

Robbery victim released from hospital, traumatized

By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — A woman who was hospitalized after being the victim of an armed robbery near Court Street has been released from the hospital.

Detective Sgt. Kevin Butler said she is home and recovering, but both women are still traumatized by what happened to them.

"We are following several active leads," said Butler, who noted that both the patrol division and the detectives division are investigating.

On Monday at 5 p.m., two women were walking from the Belknap Mall toward Laconia when they were robbed by a white man who brandished a small black handgun.

The woman was injured when she was pushed to the ground. She was taken to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon for treatment for a head injury. The other woman's purse was stolen, which contained personal identifications and a passport.

Immediately after the armed robbery, Chief Christopher Adams said that this appears to be a crime committed by someone who did not know the victims and that this particular type of seemingly random crime is unsettling to the community and is of the highest priority for the department.

Butler said that anyone with any information is asked to call 524-5252 or the Laconia Crime Line at 524-1919.

Future of independent hospitals unsure

Q&A following annual meeting on LRGHealthcare’s financial status leaves open possibility of merger, more layoffs

 

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — Although LRGHealthcare is in the midst of efforts to overcome its financial plight, concern for the prospects of the organization prompted keen questioning of the leadership team at the 2016 annual meeting at the Beane Conference Center this week.

Asked for his vision for the next five years by Bill Bald of Melcher & Precott Insurance, incoming chairman of the board of trustees Scott Sullivan said that the immediate priority is "to return to profitability" and, when pressed, conceded "I can't tell you whether we will or won't be an independent organization in five years."

Likewise, outgoing chairman Scott Clarenbach more than once stressed both Lakes Region General Hospital and Franklin Regional Hospital "cannot be everything to everyone going forward."

Milo Pike, a patron of Lakes Region General Hospital and LRGH for many years, was skeptical. "it looks to me like its headed for a funeral and somebody is going to have to take over and raise some money," he said and later suggested if there was an opportunity to merge with a stronger organization, it should be taken.

In January, Healthcare Partners LTD, a management consulting group, began assisting LRGH with improving its financial performance and quality of care as well as to position the organization to cope with changes overtaking the health care industry. Ken Lowrie of Prism emphasized that that the situation of LRGH is "not unique," but facing hospitals throughout the country.

Lorie explained that Prism, in collaboration with the staff of LRGH, would be introducing changes, not producing what he called "credenza ware," or long reports that go unread. Instead, he said that efficiencies in managing the work force, supply chain, revenue cycle, clinical performance and physicians operations work force would be implemented to control the cost of operations without compromising either the quality of care or delivery of services.

Prism has identified between $15 million and $21 million in both lower costs and higher revenues, some of which he said have already been reflected in the income statement. He anticipated the process of identifying and making changes would be completed in July when the task of sustaining them would fall the to personnel of LRGH. "You guys don't want consultants in here year after year."

In reply to a question from Milo Pike, a patron of Lakes Region General Hospital and LRGH for many years, Clarenbach said the consultants would receive between 20 percent and 25 percent of the cost savings achieved in the first year.

With talk of greater efficiency, Jim DiRubbo of Malone, DiRubbo & Company, an accounting firm, asked if more layoffs are in the offing. In March, 58 full-time employees, including clinical, technical and managerial personnel, were laid off, reducing the total payroll from 1,585 to 1,527. In addition, during the several months before the layoffs, another 80 positions were eliminated through attrition.

Clarenbach said that some of the 58 employees let go in March have been rehired and "no other large-scale reduction in force is on the table, but that is not to say there may not be reductions in the future."

Clarenbach said that layoffs are based on volume and, replying to a question about the closure of the intensive care unit at Franklin Regional Hospital, explained that since the unit had less than one patient per day, nine or 10 nursing positions were eliminated. He said that patients can be stabilized at Franklin Regional Hospital and transported to an intensive care unit at another facility without undue risk. "We are no longer holding patients in intensive care at Franklin," he said.

Clarenbach was also asked about the search for a president and chief executive in the wake of the sudden resignation of Seth Warren after just six months in the the position. He acknowledged that Warren's departure, following on the heels of Chuck Van Sluyter's 14-month tenure as an interim chief executive officer, has been "hard on the organization." However, he said that the second choice of the board when Warren was hired has been approached and "We are in final negotiations and right on the edge of agreement."

Replying to a question about what could be done to attract a greater share of privately privately insured patients, Sullivan said that success would depend on fostering economic development and population growth. He said that Henry Lipman, senior vice president for financial strategy and external relations at LRGH, was a past chairman of the Belknap Economic Development Council and remained active in the agency. Likewise, he said that LRGH was in partnership with a number of other organizations and agencies in the Lakes Region to strengthen the economy and balance the population of the region.

In closing, Clarenbach repeated that "We can no longer be a health care system that ties to meet every need for everyone but we certainly can commit to being a partner of excellence to our patients when we do undertake their care."