State AG's office takes over Forte prosecution

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MONTPELIER — The state Attorney General's Office announced Friday that the office will take over prosecution of a decades-old child sexual assault case in Bennington County, saying "justice has been delayed for far too long."

The new prosecution team, comprised of three attorneys, will represent the state against Leonard Forte, who was recently appointed a public defender.

Forte, 78, of Fort Myers, Florida, was charged in 1987 with three counts of sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl. The attacks allegedly occurred at his vacation home in Landgrove after he retired as an investigator with New York's Suffolk County District Attorney's Office and was a resident of Long Island, N.Y.

A jury convicted Forte of all his charges the following year, according to Bennington Banner archives. He was facing up to 60 years in prison, but the presiding judge overturned the verdicts in 1989 and ordered a new trial. The judge reportedly said the prosecutor had prejudiced the jury by expressing too much emotion.

The case has since 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.

The Bennington Superior criminal court has held at least one hearing a year, with Forte phoning in from Florida. The defendant, who served as his own attorney, has said he is too ill to travel back to Vermont.

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"Justice has been delayed for far too long in this case," Attorney General T.J. Donovan said in a release Friday. "The State of Vermont is committed to seeking justice for the victim and bringing Mr. Forte to trial. The time is now."

The new litigation team will be led by Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy, of the AG's office's criminal division.

The two other members were appointed as special assistant attorneys general in 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.

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While Amestoy was attorney general and Burgess deputy attorney general, the men "led the state's initial effort to end delay and reinstate Mr. Forte's previous conviction," according to the AG's office.

The team is taking over from David Tartter, of the Vermont Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, who has been handling the Forte case since the 1990s. The new prosecutors will "work collaboratively" with the department of state's attorneys, the AG's office said.

Forte is represented by Susan McManus, an attorney with the Office of the Defender General in Bennington County. She declined to comment on the AG's office's announcement when reached by email Friday, saying her office had also just received the news.

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Forte has repeatedly expressed his innocence of the charges. He has asked the court to dismiss his charges, which had been denied.

McManus was appointed as Forte's lawyer on Monday, after the prosecution said at his last hearing Dec. 9 that the state is ready to take the case to trial.

This came after a news report in USA Today provided accounts of Forte and his wife taking extended trips, such as to New York state, as well as owning several boats.

The story, which described Forte's case as the oldest open prosecution in Vermont, also included an image of Forte re-positioning a vehicle outside his home in just a T-shirt and sweat pants after he had claimed to be on "oxygen 24/7."

Forte is scheduled for a status conference at 1:30 p.m. Monday before Judge Kerry McDonald-Cady in Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division. The prosecutors will appear in person; at the last hearing, both parties phoned into the court.

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


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