KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- A disappearing attorney, a prosecutor’s passionate closing argument, an overturned, upheld, then overturned again conviction, and a shaky heart mark just some of the twists and turns in the case of a former New York police investigator accused of sexually assaulting a child, that has been in a holding pattern since 2005 and is itself 25 years old.
Leonard Forte, 72, pleaded not guilty to three counts of sexual assault on July 6, 1987, in Bennington District Court, which is now Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division. Police said Forte was accused of sexually assaulting the 12-year-old daughter of a friend at Forte’s vacation home in Landgrove during that year’s ski season.
Forte was convicted on those charges in December 1988 by a jury but Judge Theodore S. Mandeville, who presided over the trial, overturned the conviction because he felt the prosecutor, Theresa St. Helaire - who is now known as Judge Theresa DiMauro - expressed too much emotion during her closing argument.
According to a report at that time in The Rutland Herald, Mandeville overturned Forte’s conviction and ordered a new trial because St. Helaire’s demeanor prejudiced the jury. He characterized her as having shown "a fury seldom seen this side of hell," which was disputed by then-Attorney General Jeffrey Amestoy. Amestoy said Mandeville had overstepped his bounds as a judge and implied that Mandeville had made the call because St. Helaire is a woman.
The case was appealed to Superior Court Judge Ellen Maloney, who reversed Mandeville’s order and said Forte’s conviction stood. However, in 1993, the Vermont Supreme Court intervened and told Maloney to look at the case again.
Maloney never reached a decision and left the case when St. Helaire, who by then had changed her name to DiMauro, became a judge and left the case. The matter was then put before Judge Hilton Dier, who was retired at the time, and in 1994 was unable to reconcile Mandeville’s and Maloney’s opinions. But, because burden of proof lay with the state, Dier ordered a new trial, and rather than keep fighting for the old conviction, the Attorney General’s Office decided to go ahead with a new trial.
By this time, seven years had passed since Forte’s conviction. These days the average length of a serious criminal case in Bennington court, complete with legal complications, is about one or two years. Forte’s case has had its fair share of complexities and the one that has been keeping the case in a holding pattern and delaying a new trial has been Forte’s heart.
After his conviction, Forte suffered four heart attacks that year and argued that the stress of a second trial would kill him. However, there were two other complicating factors in the case that came into play, one being whether Forte qualified for a public defender and the other being the disappearance of the lawyer he ultimately hired.
Public defenders are attorneys assigned to defendants who cannot afford private counsel. Forte claimed he was out of money and owed $70,000 in medical bills from the heart attacks. According to past media reports, it was discovered by the Attorney General’s Office that Forte, who was assigned a public defender, owned a $350,000 waterfront house in Florida, six cars, and a 31-foot boat.
Forte was subsequently denied the use of a public defender and according to court documents Bennington attorney David R. Singiser began representing Forte on July 12, 1996, and was the one to argue his client only had 20 percent use of his heart and was not expected to live past a year without a transplant. Forte would later argue on his own behalf that he feared his chances of getting a transplant would diminish if his doctors became aware of the charges pending against him or if he were convicted again.
According to media reports, in 1998 Singiser and his law partner, Kathryn Kent, abandoned their clients. Singiser was officially taken off Forte’s case in 2003 and the court docket listed him as having been disbarred. Reports from the time said Kent’s license was suspended as part of the matter, and there does not seem to be any record as to why Singiser disappeared or where he went.
The attorney handling the case now for the prosecution is Assistant Attorney General David E. Tartter, who said in an interview Tuesday he cannot remember when he first came on the case, but his name first appears on the docket record in 1997. Tartter said on June 28, 1995, Forte filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds of ill health. He said an agreement was eventually reached between the state and Forte that every six months he would update the court on his medical condition, which he has been doing regularly since at least 2005. Tartter said Forte was able to show he was placed on a waiting list for a heart transplant, which if he were to get, he would then theoretically be well enough to stand trial.
Tartter said should Forte ever go off the heart transplant list the case would be revisited. Tartter said on Nov. 9, 2012, Forte, who has been representing himself since Singiser’s disappearance, filed a motion to dismiss the case since, according to Forte, he has been removed from the transplant list. The motion was heard on Jan. 4 of this year by Judge Cortland Corsones.
Corsones released a written order on Jan. 7 stating that Forte is to share his medical information with the Attorney General’s Office so it can make a decision. Tartter said that means Forte is to supply him with contact information for doctors whom he will contact. Tartter said he does not have enough information at this point to know how he will use any information he gets, but that information is not to be given outside his office as per Corsones’ order.
Tartter said the alleged victim, who would be around 38 years old now, is willing to take the stand again.
According to court documents a status conference on the case has been scheduled for March 15. Forte is free and lives between Long Island, N.Y., and Fort Myers, Fla. Tartter said Forte appears for his scheduled court conferences via telephone and the court, nor the Attorney General’s Office, feels he is a flight risk as he had not attempted to do so in all this time, plus his age and ill health make such an event unlikely.
Forte did not return calls made Thursday to the phone number he has provided the court.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or @kwhitcombjr on Twitter.