Attorneys spar in long-running Forte case

Judge resets status conference to Jan. 23

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BENNINGTON — Attorneys argued in court Monday on whether an arrest warrant should be issued for a Florida man who didn't attend that day's hearing in his decadeslong child sexual assault case here.

State prosecutors said it was "not acceptable" that Leonard Forte, 78, didn't call into the Monday afternoon status conference since he had been informed of it at his previous hearing, as well as the state's intention to retry the case.

"The fact that Mr. Forte has been appearing by phone — and today is not — is of concern to the state," said Vermont Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy, who is leading the new team of prosecutors  in the case.

Purdy said also the prosecution has information that Forte may not have been complying with his conditions of release from jail, which was issued in 1989.

It was the same year a Bennington judge overturned his conviction on three counts of sexual assault against a 12-year-old girl and ordered a new trial, saying the female prosecutor had prejudiced the jury by being too emotional.

The assault allegedly occurred at Forte's vacation home in Landgrove after he retired as an investigator with New York's Suffolk County District Attorney's Office and was living in Long Island, N.Y.

The case has stalled because of Forte's claims of a terminal illness. He said he has suffered several heart attacks and a new trial could kill him.

"At this point, we would ask that the court issue an arrest warrant for Mr. Forte to appear," Purdy told Bennington Superior Court Judge Cortland Corsones at the hearing Monday.

Forte's lawyer objected to the request, saying state law doesn't require a defendant to appear at status conferences.

"Absent an entry order from the court requiring his presence to be here, I don't think that the court can issue an arrest warrant," said Susan McManus, of the Office of the Defender General in Bennington County, who was appointed last week to represent Forte.

For years, Forte had served as his own attorney and appeared in court by phone from his new home in Fort Myers, Florida.

McManus said also that a letter her office sent Forte last week provided him with the wrong time for Monday's hearing.

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Judge Corsones decided to reset the status conference to 1 p.m. on Jan. 23, saying Forte might have had a "confusion" with that day's hearing schedule.

Purdy asked that Forte appear in person if possible, with her later telling reporters the prosecution believes Mr. Forte's accounts of his ill health "may not have been entirely the truth."

The victim in the case — who is now 45 years old and living outside Vermont — is willing to travel back here and testify at trial, Purdy said.

The woman, identified in court documents as M. D., will be listening in during next week's hearing after Corsones granted the prosecution's request to allow her to phone in.

"Justice has been horribly delayed," Purdy told reporters, echoing a statement from State Attorney General T.J. Donovan when his office announced Friday that it was taking over the Forte prosecution.

The Bennington Superior Court has scheduled Forte for jury selection on April 7, but the defense might ask for more time to prepare for trial.

The case's new prosecutors include two special assistant attorneys general specifically appointed for the case: Jeff Amestoy, former chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court and former state attorney general, and Brian Burgess, former associate justice of the state supreme court and former state deputy attorney general.

Donovan chose them to be part of the litigation team because they were among the prosecutors who, back in the 1990s, appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court to have Forte's convictions reinstated. The Supreme Court sent it back to the trial court.

The new prosecutors are collaborating with the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, which had previously handled the case.

When asked, Purdy admitted that recent media coverage of the criminal case has played a part in its now gathering momentum toward a retrial.

Between 2013 and 2019, according to Bennington Superior Court records, the Forte case has held hearings only one to three times a year.

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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