BENNINGTON — A 79-year-old former law enforcement officer pleaded not guilty Wednesday to obstructing justice in his long-running child sexual assault case.
Leonard Forte’s new felony charges come less than two weeks after the Bennington Superior Court found him physically capable of being retried on sexual assault charges going back three decades. He is accused of assaulting a 12-year-old girl at his Landgrove vacation home in 1987.
A retired investigator with New York’s Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, Forte was convicted on three charges of sexual assault in 1988. But the presiding judge granted him a new trial, saying the female prosecutor had prejudiced the jury by being too emotional.
The state charged him again in 1997, but the case remained in limbo for more than two decades while Forte continually claimed to be too sick to travel to Vermont and stand trial.
Now, state prosecutors are alleging he lied about his health condition in order to evade prosecution.
On June 21, 2019, according to his charging document, Forte submitted to the trial court a letter “purporting to be the medical opinion of Dr. Shailaja Hegde, which stated that the defendant was unable to travel or to accurately testify, when, in fact, the letter was submitted without Dr. Hegde’s knowledge or authorization.”
Dr. Hegde is an internal medicine specialist in Florida, close to Forte’s current residence in the city of LaBelle.
Also on June 21, 2019, the document states, Forte told the court that “he was currently in hospice, when, in fact, he had been discharged from the Hope Hospice program three months earlier on approximately March 15, 2019.”
Through these actions, Forte “endeavored to corruptly impede the due administration of justice by further delaying his retrial.”
Each count of obstruction of justice is punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.
At a hearing Wednesday afternoon, Forte’s lead attorney entered not guilty pleas on the new charges. Forte attended by phone but did not speak.
Public defender Susan McManus also said Forte would arrange to have his photograph and fingerprints taken at his local sheriff’s office within 30 days. If an extension is needed, McManus said the defense would inform the court.
The lead prosecutor, meanwhile, asked the court to include the new case on a pending order to have Forte evaluated for mental competency. “So we can get it all done and move forward,” said Linda Purdy, a recently retired state assistant attorney general who has been sworn in as a Bennington County Deputy State’s Attorney in order to continue prosecuting Forte’s cases.
The mental evaluation request came from Forte’s team a month ago, after his lawyers said he suffered a fall at home and some medical care providers began to express concerns about his declining cognitive status. No definite date for the evaluation was given at the hearing Wednesday.
Forte is due back in court on July 26, when the parties are expected to discuss jury selection and trial dates on his sexual assault case. The presiding judge, Cortland Corsones, denied on June 24 Forte’s request to have his charges dismissed based on Forte’s latest assertion of physical incapacity to stand trial.
The judge’s decision came after a series of hearings, held over five days between March and June, in which testimony was taken from heart doctors, a hospitalist, psychologists, law enforcement officers and Forte’s daughter. Florida police also presented surveillance video, showing Forte running errands about 30 miles from home.