BENNINGTON — A man who has claimed for decades that he is too sick to stand trial on child sexual assault charges was seen driving, pumping gas and going to an ATM just last month, prosecutors told the court Monday.
Police surveillance spotted Leonard Forte running errands half the day on Jan. 13, some 30 miles from his Florida home, Vermont Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy said. A 21-minute video apparently captured Forte out and about with his wife.
“All in contradiction of what his medical experts have said,” Purdy told the Bennington Superior Court, “two of whom have opined that he basically can barely get through his activities of daily living and barely leaves the house or his bed.”
Forte, 79, is facing three counts of sexual assault against a 12-year-old girl in Landgrove — felony charges that date back to February 1987. He was convicted by a jury in 1988, but the presiding judge ordered a new trial, saying the female prosecutor had prejudiced the jury by being too emotional.
Until the case attracted national media attention in 2019, it had been in limbo since the ‘90s, when Forte began saying he has a terminal illness and a new trial could kill him. Each of his charges is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Forte has renewed his request to have his criminal case thrown out. He is scheduled to present evidence on his claimed physical incapacity to stand trial at a March 30-April 1 hearing. The retired investigator with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in New York is now living in LaBelle, Fla. He had been a resident of Wading River, N.Y., when he was charged.
Last month’s surveillance, conducted by Florida law enforcement, could offer evidence that Forte isn’t as sick as he contends. The four witnesses whom prosecutors intend to call during the upcoming evidentiary hearing include two Florida law enforcement officers. Defense attorneys plan to call three medical experts.
Forte’s lawyers asked the court Monday to delay the evidentiary hearing, saying they wouldn’t have enough time to review the Florida police reports, depose the law enforcement officers, transcribe their testimony and have these reviewed by defense experts. Prosecutors had revealed the police surveillance took place between December and earlier this month.
“This was news to the defense,” one of Forte’s three lawyers, Susan McManus, said during the remote hearing. Defense lawyers learned of the police surveillance only on Thursday, she added.
If the evidentiary hearing can’t be delayed, McManus told Judge Cortland Corsones, the only option that would be fair to the defense is to bar the law enforcement officers from testifying.
The prosecution disagreed, saying there were still five weeks left to accomplish the tasks that Forte’s lawyers outlined. Until the deposition transcripts are ready, Purdy said defense attorneys could send their experts the “short” surveillance video and an accompanying PowerPoint presentation.
She said prosecutors couldn’t disclose the surveillance earlier, because it would tip off Forte. But not surveilling Forte would have been remiss.
“We would not be fulfilling our obligation to fully investigate the defendant’s claims of physical incapacity,” Purdy explained. “In order to do that, the court needs to know what his current level of activity is in Florida. The only way to do that was to do surveillance.”
She discouraged further delaying the evidentiary hearing, citing the case’s age.
Judge Corsones sided with the prosecution, ordering both parties to prepare for the hearing that will start March 30. “I expect everybody to work diligently to be ready by the scheduled hearing,” he said, adding that he would still take up any future requests for a delay.
Which law enforcement agency conducted the surveillance of Forte is unclear. The Attorney General’s Office, which took over his prosecution last year with the goal of taking him to trial, declined to answer additional questions about the police surveillance.
The case victim, who is now in her mid-40s, said she is ready to return to court and testify. She participates in the Bennington court hearings remotely.