BENNINGTON — Thirty-four years and a cultural awakening of a nation separate two prosecutors at opposite ends of the case of Leonard Forte, accused in 1987 of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Forte died last Wednesday before justice could be served.
Both prosecutors share a view of those years — of charges and trials, of a questionable dismissal based on even more questionable reasoning. They see it as a story of decades of delays, dodged allegations, and legal maneuverings, a master class on playing the judicial system in Vermont, filled with gender bias, frustration, deceptions, and, in the end, the possible denial of equal justice under the law.
Theresa DiMauro was the prosecutor at the start of this case, the attorney who sought — an ultimately failed — to put Forte behind bars for his crime. She felt a pit in her stomach when she heard of Forte’s death last week.
“I was devastated,” she said.
Deputy State’s Attorney Linda Purdy gathered the reins of the case last year, but, in the end, through the numerous delays, experts, hearings, new charges and legal maneuverings, ultimately, justice was as evasive as it had been for DiMauro over three decades before.
DiMauro, now a retired judge, is talking for the first time about what happened back in 1988, how then-Judge Theodore Mandeville vacated a unanimous jury verdict of guilt in the Forte case, based on his ruling that prosecutor DiMauro was “too emotional.”
“It’s the first time I’m able to comment publicly about it,” DiMauro said Monday. “I became a judge after the case was dismissed in 1993 and have served in that capacity up until March of last year when I retired, so it wouldn’t have been proper for me to comment. But now, it’s different. I never wanted to prejudice anything but was always hoping it would someday be retried.”
Forte died at his home in LaBelle, Fla., where he moved soon after the dismissal of his conviction and his retirement from law enforcement. For the past several decades, Forte has fought extradition back to Vermont, using his many health issues, deception and his perceived inability to stand trial as a delaying maneuver to drive a legal wedge between himself and justice.
In 1988, Forte stood trial for sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl at his vacation home in Landgrove one year earlier. Forte, a New York state investigator out of Long Island at the time, was found guilty by a jury on all three charges in the assault. However, the trial judge at the time, Mandeville, sided with a post-verdict motion by the defense that the lead prosecutor,, then-State’s Attorney DiMauro, had been “too emotional” at the trial, unduly influencing the jury. Mandeville threw out the conviction.
Since then, Forte and his team of attorneys have used numerous loopholes in the judicial system to fight extradition back to Vermont to again stand trial on the charges.
“It was a miscarriage of justice,” DiMauro said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it was gender discrimination, not only against me but the victim, too. It was used as a way to undo a jury’s verdict. The language that the judge used made that abundantly clear as to what the motivation was.”
DiMauro still feels that Mandeville somehow blamed her when the trial’s court reporter walked out in the middle of the trial and used language that was ultimately used by the defense to claim bias in the case. “He blamed me for that,” DiMauro said. “He stated that the court reporter left because I was going too fast, but I was just passionate about finding justice for the victim. The truth is, I wasn’t emotional. I was exhausted. It was very hard.”
The court reporter never came back, she recalled, and the rest of the trial, even the closing arguments, had to be tape-recorded. “That’s what he said in court, that he blamed me for it, and the defense put that in their motion for a new trial,” she said. “They seized on that, and so did the judge in taking away the jury verdict.”
“Women, unlike men, are accused of being over-emotional,” DiMauro said, “but men are never accused of that. Using that term clearly to most people and me would indicate that the judge was biased against me simply because I was a woman. It was the ‘80s as well, not like today, so nothing ever happened to the judge as a result.”
She said her focus became undoing the damage by getting the verdict reinstated — for the victim’s sake and the sake of justice.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s guilty. The jury felt the same way. Twelve people convicted him of three felonies, each carrying 20 years, and the judge just let him go.”
When asked whether the decision weighed on her afterward in her career, DiMauro noted that it wasn’t very unusual to be treated differently if you are a woman in the ‘80s by other attorneys and litigants, even judges.
“Some men even today think that you’re going to favor the woman because you are a woman, so you’re always trying to bend over backward to try and make it clear that you’re basing your decisions on what the evidence is, that it has nothing to do with siding one way or the other,” she said. “I’ve had always to be aware of that and try to be clear that won’t be a factor.”
When speaking about the case, DiMauro chose her words carefully, pausing to think about the ramifications of words on people she doesn’t know.
“Looking back, I was really … upset when that decision came down. The sole basis of that decision he issued was me. There are always motions for new trials after a trial ends. Typically, defense attorneys will say that the evidence was insufficient or that the charges don’t rise to the level of what happened. Still, nearly always, it’s based on the law, pretty straightforward. In this case, the judge said something about me in open court that the defense used as the basis for the motion to dismiss, and then the judge dismissed the charges. Just like that.”
DiMauro still keeps her focus on the victim. “I was devastated for her. She was 16 when it was reversed. It happened when she was 12, so four years later, there was no justice. I felt terrible for what she went through. All that time passed, how long it all took. Now, she’s in her forties, and it’s the same thing. We tried everything to get it overturned to where we were, but it didn’t work out that way.”
DiMauro still feels it can happen, even with today’s “woke” movement. “That depends on what state you’re in. I still read about things like this happening, and you say, seriously? That’s what they’re basing a decision on? I don’t doubt it can still happen, but I don’t know if it would be as blatant and that if it did happen, it wouldn’t be so difficult to undo it.”
This year, there was a glimmer of hope that Forte would finally face justice, with the Vermont Supreme Court rejecting his latest extradition appeal just last week. But Forte’s death put an end to that effort. Purdy, the deputy state’s attorney, echoes the thoughts of the woman who came before her so many years ago.
“The criminal justice system fell short in this case, of what these delays did to this victim, what it would do to any victim in a case like this, especially a sexual crime against a minor.” Purdy said. “First and foremost, I know we have to protect the rights of defendants, but don’t the victims have rights as well? Victim rights matter. They also have to be protected and asserted. She was just 12. I think we have to take a long, hard look at why it took so long. This is a very abrupt and unfortunate ending to a very long, frustrating case.”
Purdy sounded very similar to DiMauro.
“I am devastated,” she said.
Purdy described the type of person the victim went on to become. “She’s an amazingly strong, patient and wise human being. She’s lived a generous and kind life in the service of others, a trauma nurse, one of our essential workers, all without ever seeing justice or having closure. Yet, despite all of that, she’s tried to put this in its proper place. We always knew we were going to have to fight for justice in this case, especially after such an injustice from the trial judge in this case.”
Purdy and DiMauro are two professional prosecutors, both women, both seeking justice 34 years apart. Both feel the frustration of a system that got played for reasons that don’t make any sense.
“He played the system and he won,” DiMauro said.