By MICHAEL MORTENSEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Belknap County is asking a federal court to dismiss a suit filed by a former County Corrections Department inmate, charging the county with negligence related to the inmate allegedly being sexually assaulted by former Sheriff's Department Sgt. E. Justin Blanchette.
The suit is the third against the county and Blanchette related to his alleged assaults of female prisoners he was transporting on official business.
In the federal suit, the former inmate alleges that Blanchette coerced her to have sex with him multiple times between September 2014 and July 2015, including once in a Sheriff's Department van when he was transporting the woman from the Belknap County Courthouse to the State Women's Prison in Goffstown. The suit also states that "other inappropriate sexual conduct by ... Blanchette predated the conduct [alleged in the suit] and that [his] sexual deviance was a poorly kept secret."
In seeking to have the suit dismissed, an attorney retained by the county's liability insurance carrier has argued that the county should not be held liable for Blanchette's action because the victim never reported to anyone in authority what Blanchette allegedly did. In addition, the county maintains that the victim cited no specifics to support the contention that Blanchette's actions were the result of indifference by the county regarding hiring, screening, training, supervising or disciplining of county employees who have direct contact with inmates.
Earlier this month, the Federal Court Clerk's office instructed the victim's attorney to provide documentation that Blanchette has been formally notified of the suit. In issuing the notice to the victim's attorney, the court stated that Blanchette has not communicated in any way with the court regarding the case.
Last year, in June and December, a pair of civil cases filed against the county in Merrimack County Superior Court were dismissed because the court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence that Blanchette's behavior was in any way enabled by any negligence or "deliberate indifference" on the county's part. The suits were brought by a man and his then-fiancee, both inmates, whom Blanchette allegedly allowed to have sex in the back seat of the transport van while Blanchette watched.
Blanchette was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison after a jury in Hillsborough Superior Court North found him guilty in April 2016 of aggravated felonious sexual assault, but he was released last May after the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction on a technicality, the wording of a state statute.
At trial, a jury found Blanchette had 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.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify that the county is being represented in this matter by an attorney retained by the county's liability insurance carrier. The Belknap County Attorney's Office is not involved in the case.