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BENNINGTON — A psychologist who evaluated Leonard Forte found he wouldn’t be competent to stand trial because of the mental effects of his health issues — an assertion disputed by another psychologist at a Tuesday hearing in the three-decade-old child sex case.

Forte, 79, has claimed since the 1990s that he is too sick to be retried on three counts of sexual assault against a 12-year-old girl in Landgrove. A retired investigator in New York, Forte was convicted by a jury in 1988, but the presiding judge ordered a new trial, saying the female prosecutor had prejudiced jurors by being too emotional.

In a two-part hearing this week and in early May, Forte is presenting evidence to Superior Judge Cortland Corsones to back up his claims of physical incapacity to stand trial.

Forte appeared remotely on Tuesday from his home in LaBelle, Fla., with a few minutes of video feed showing him lying in bed. The person he stands accused of assaulting, who is now in her mid-40s, also attended the hearing remotely. 

Vermont Asst. Attorney General Linda Purdy, who is leading the litigation team, characterized Forte’s claims as an “enterprise of deceit and lies” during one of the many contentious exchanges between the two sides that day.

DIFFERING PSYCHOLOGICAL VIEWS

Thomas Powell, a Vermont forensic psychologist who has reviewed Forte’s medical records, said the defendant suffers from ailments such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. He said a personality test he administered also shows Forte has anxiety, depression as well as paranoia with the state’s prosecution.

An expert witness for Forte’s team, Powell said Forte doesn’t have the mental and emotional focus to assist in his defense, and would have difficulty understanding court procedures and decorum.

Forte, he said, has an implanted defibrillator that sends an electric shock to the heart if it detects an abnormal heartbeat. And a surge of passion, energy or fear — such as during a trial — could again set off the device.

“It might very well trigger some sort of medical emergency,” Powell said from the stand, adding that emergency medical services could be placed on call if Forte were to undergo another trial.

But another clinical psychologist, who testified for the state, said Powell couldn’t have determined Forte’s competency based on a written personality and psychopathology test.

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The Personality Assessment Inventory, which Forte completed over a three-week period at home, wasn’t designed to evaluate a person’s competency to stand trial, said John Kurtz of Villanova University, in Pennsylvania.

Kurtz said his review of the defendant’s test results didn’t show that Forte would lack comprehension of trial proceedings. But he saw that Forte exaggerated his symptoms, though not to the point of malingering, which in psychology is the deliberate feigning of an illness or disability to achieve a particular desired outcome.

FAMILY OBSERVATIONS

Earlier in the day, one of Forte’s daughters testified about his physical decline over time. Lisa Forte, a registered nurse in Fort Myers, Fla., said she has observed him lose weight, lose focus with conversations, become more exhausted, lose interest in things he used to enjoy and become less mobile.

“Every time I see him, I feel like he is declining,” she told the court in a videocall from Forte’s home.

When repeatedly asked by Purdy if she remembered her parents traveling to New York and New Jersey in between Forte’s stay at hospice care and residential treatment in 2016 and 2019, Lisa Forte said she couldn’t recall. This line of questioning prompted multiple objections from lead defense attorney Susan McManus, who said Purdy was badgering the witness.

Lisa Forte did say that her dad had traveled about two hours away from home last Thanksgiving, spending the holiday with her sister.

The prosecution has not yet presented evidence about these travels. But a Florida law enforcement officer is scheduled to testify about local police surveillance that reportedly spotted Forte running errands some 30 miles from his house in January.

If the court ruled that Forte can be retried, Purdy asked Lisa Forte if she would agree to accompany her dad back to Vermont. As the only nurse in the family, the prosecutor said she could ensure he received the necessary care amid the court proceedings.

Lisa Forte said she didn’t want that responsibility and wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so.

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com or @tiffgtan on Facebook and Twitter.


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