Victim advocates in New Hampshire say they're stunned by a former deputy sheriff's defense that the inmate he was convicted this week of sexually assaulting during transport lured him into having sex with her.
A Hillsborough County jury deliberated barely an hour Thursday before finding 36-year-old Ernest Justin Blanchette guilty of aggravated felonious sex assault on a female convict he was transporting to the women's prison in Goffstown.
The jurors rejected his attorney's assertions that the inmate manipulated and seduced him and that he did not use his authority to coerce sex.
"He's not a criminal," defense attorney Brad Davis told jurors Thursday. "She wanted this to happen."
Davis did not return phone calls Thursday and Friday seeking comment on whether he would use the same defense strategy at Blanchette's next trial on separate charges of sexually assaulting five inmates in his custody on different dates between 2013 and 2015.
Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, called Blanchette's action "an extraordinary abuse of authority." She said there's no such thing as consent when someone's in custody.
"It doesn't matter what the person who's in custody wants," Schollett said. "It's impossible to consent when someone has that kind of authority and control over you, and the law recognizes that."
Blanchette was charged with violating a state law that elevates a sex assault charge to aggravated if the assailant is a position of authority. It states that consent is not a defense.
Prosecutor Michael Zaino told jurors Blanchette gave the woman cigarettes, let her use his cellphone and let her ride unshackled in the front seat of the transport van on July 2, 2015, en route to an abandoned house in Bedford where he sexually assaulted her. He said that Blanchette initially lied to investigators about the encounter, but that a video surveillance camera in the neighbored captured them coming and going.
"When you look at the bribes, he's just gaining additional control over her fate," Schollett said.
Zaino said Blanchette was in control "every step of the way" and called the 32-year-old inmate "an institutionalized drug addict."
"He has all the power. She has none," he said.
The inmate, who remains incarcerated, sat in a back row of the Manchester courtroom. During final arguments, she occasionally sobbed softly and leaned into the shoulder of prison victim advocate Jean Carroll. The inmate is among the five prosecutors allege Blanchette raped during transports in Merrimack and Belknap counties.
Carroll said many inmates are vulnerable to abuse of power by those in authority.
"They're in prison for a reason," Carroll said. "They're not in prison to be sexually abused."
Blanchette did not testify, and Davis called no witnesses.
Blanchette, a Belknap County deputy sheriff at the time of his first arrest, resigned last year. He also is a former Laconia police officer. After the jury returned its verdict, Blanchette was handcuffed and taken into custody to await sentencing. No sentencing date has been set.
He was indicted on nine felony counts in February and has pleaded not guilty.