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Former women's prison inmate sues Belknap County, sheriff's deputy she had sex with

By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader

February 07. 2018 1:54PM
Ernest "Justin" Blanchette (Bea Lewis/Correspondent File)



A former inmate of the Belknap County jail has sued the county and Justin Blanchette, the former deputy sheriff who was convicted and then cleared of coercing her to have sex with him while on the way to the state prison and a dentist appointment.

Filed in U.S. District Court, the suit seeks unspecified damages for assault, battery, sexual discrimination and emotional distress suffered by the woman.

Two years ago, her testimony in Hillsborough County Superior Court-North helped win convictions against Blanchette. But he walked out of prison in May 2017 after the New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed the verdict based on the wording of the state’s sexual assault statute.

The lawsuit describes how Blanchette, a sergeant for the Belknap County Sheriff’s Department, used access to his cellphone and cigarettes to coerce sex from the inmate. He did so in September 2014 on her way from the county jail to a dentist appointment and then in July 2015 from the jail to the State Prison for Women in Goffstown, the lawsuit reads.

It also mentions three other sexually charged incidents involving Blanchette and five individuals.

“Defendant Blanchette engaged in this conduct when he was in a position of authority over (the inmate) and used that authority over (the inmate) to coerce her into said sexual activity,” reads the complaint, filed by Manchester lawyer Lawrence Vogelman.

The lawsuit names the woman; the New Hampshire Union Leader is withholding her name because the newspaper has a policy of not naming the victims of sexual assault.

She was an inmate when she testified at the trial, but was paroled last October, according to the state Corrections Department.

Blanchette was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for aggravated felonious sexual assault in the case. But the New Hampshire Supreme Court threw out the conviction, citing state law that prohibits sexual contact involving a person who has authority over a victim by virtue of employment.

As a sheriff’s deputy, Blanchette was employed by the Sheriff’s Department, not the county jail or New Hampshire Department of Corrections, which are separate organizations.

Last month, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee of the New Hampshire House unanimously approved a change in the wording of the state’s sexual assault law to cover situations like the Blanchette case. The change is scheduled to go before the full House today for a vote.

The former inmate filed the lawsuit in August, but Blanchette has yet to respond to it, and on Tuesday court officials laid out the procedure for Vogelman to follow to declare Blanchette in default. The lawyer has two weeks to do so.

Belknap County has asked that it be removed from the suit, claiming it knew nothing about the assaults.

“Plaintiff’s allegations that the County ‘knew or should have known’ of Blanchette’s prior improper conduct are conclusory, contradictorily vague, and lack any genuine fact asserted upon which to base a claim against the County,” wrote Concord lawyer Corey Belobrow.

But Vogelman said other acts of sexual assault took place before his client was assaulted.

“Defendant’s sexual deviance was a poorly kept secret,” he wrote. A judge will eventually have to rule on the county’s request for a dismissal.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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