BENNINGTON — A Vermont judge has ruled that Leonard Forte is physically able to stand trial on child sexual assault charges from 1987, and will be setting dates for a jury draw and trial.
The decision, handed down by Superior Judge Cortland Corsones last Thursday, is a significant development in a case that’s considered one of the oldest open prosecutions in the country.
Forte, 79, a former New York law enforcement officer, was convicted at a 1988 trial of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl at his Landgrove vacation home. Each count of sexual assault is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. But the following year, the trial judge overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial, saying the female prosecutor had prejudiced the jury by being too emotional.
Since 1995, according to court records, Forte has tried to get his three felony assault charges dismissed based on physical incapacity to stand trial. The case remained in limbo for two decades while Forte was asked to provide regular medical records on his fitness for trial, primarily constituted by a heart problem.
During this period, when Forte moved from New York to Florida, he was found to have traveled multiple times, including a three-month trip to New York in 2016 and a three-week trip to New Jersey in 2019. He was also recorded on police surveillance video running errands with his wife about 30 miles from home in January.
These pieces of information, along with doctor testimonies, were presented to the court during five days of hearings held between March and June. Forte’s lawyers argued that he was too sick to be retried and his charges should be dropped. The Vermont Attorney General’s Office countered that Forte was not as sick as he’d been claiming and should stand trial again.
Last week, the Bennington Superior Court denied Forte’s request.
“Although the defendant suffers from serious medical conditions, and heart attacks cannot be predicted, the medical evidence demonstrates that the defendant is not at substantial risk to his health or life, if he is required to travel to VT and to attend jury trial,” Corsones wrote in a portion of his 10-page decision.
The judge said that evidence of Forte’s “activities outside the courthouse” also shows that he is physically competent to be retried. “The evidence demonstrates that the defendant exaggerates the limitations on his activities,” Corsones said. “The defendant is able to safely travel, when it is something he wants to do.”
MEASURES TO MINIMIZE RISKS
The court, he said, can take measures to minimize the trial’s risks to Forte’s health. These including shortening the trial hours per day and increasing the number of daily breaks so Forte will have more time to east, rest and take his medication. The court could also allow Forte to appear remotely, rather than in person, if both the defense and prosecution agree.
“There would be no ‘usefulness’ in delaying this case further,” Corsones said. “Defendant’s most serious conditions are permanent and will not improve over time.”
He said the court will be discussing dates for Forte’s jury draw and trial. The hearing is set for July 26, according to court records.
Charity Clark, chief of staff at the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, said: “We are pleased that this case can finally move ahead and we look forward to trial.”
At the July 26 hearing, Clark said, the parties will also discuss Forte’s most recent request for a mental competency evaluation.
Forte’s lead attorney couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the case saw a new twist when Vermont State Police announced that it has brought new felony charges against Forte. He has been cited with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly lying about his health condition to evade prosecution in the child sexual assault case.
Police said he is scheduled to appear in Bennington Superior criminal court on Wednesday to answer to the charges.