BENNINGTON — Leonard Forte’s evidentiary hearing is happening next week despite his request to postpone it because of new evidence from the state as well as his lead attorney’s health condition.
Forte, 79, is charged with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl in Landgrove back in 1987. After the trial judge overturned his 1988 conviction and ordered a new trial, Forte has claimed that he is too sick to be retried.
The criminal case remained in limbo, until the state Attorney General’s Office took over the prosecution last year, committing to take Forte to trial.
Whether Forte will be retried after nearly 30 years is a decision that Judge Cortland Corsones, of the Bennington Superior Court, will make. Forte will be presenting evidence to prove his claims of physical incapacity in an evidentiary hearing that begins on Tuesday. It has been scheduled to run till April 1.
Corsones ruled during a hearing Tuesday afternoon that four witnesses will be called: a psychologist, Forte’s daughter and two law enforcement officers from Florida, where Forte now lives.
Forte was a resident of Wading River, N.Y., when he was charged as well as a retired investigator with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in New York.
The Florida law enforcement officers came up as witnesses last month, after prosecutors revealed that police surveillance spotted Forte running errands half the day in January, some 30 miles from his home. A 21-minute video apparently captured Forte out and about with his wife. But the testimony of medical doctors — the cornerstone of the evidentiary hearing — has been postponed for several weeks.
Corsones made the decision after lead defense attorney Susan McManus told the court she developed an acute eye condition and wouldn’t be able to prepare the “voluminous medical records” needed for the hearing or continue preparing for the direct examination of a heart doctor.
Defense attorneys said Forte’s most notable medical issue is “end-stage cardiomyopathy.” It’s a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body and can lead to heart failure.
“Attorney McManus has been the attorney who has had the vast majority of contact with Mr. Forte. She is also responsible for the direct testimony of one of the main experts in this case,” co-defense attorney Kate Lamson wrote in an emergency motion last Wednesday. The defense asked the court to delay the entire evidentiary hearing.
Corsones decided to split the hearing into two parts, citing his ability to put the pieces of information together once all the witnesses have testified. He also agreed with the argument of the lead prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy, that delaying the evidentiary hearing would only make it harder to bring Forte to trial.
“I do believe there would be prejudice to the state in just a blanket continuance, because I think, arguably, certainly the evidence is going to show that Mr. Forte’s condition does continue to get worse over time,” the judge said.
“So the more time that goes by, the less chance there would be for the state to be able to bring this case forward to a trial. Granted, that might sound a little hollow after all the time that has already passed, but we have to look from this point forward.”
Forte’s attorneys said also that earlier this month, they received from the prosecution two more body camera footage that shows Forte’s interactions with Florida law enforcement. Because the defense hasn’t had time to depose any additional witnesses, the court excluded the new footage from the hearing next week but could still bring them in at a later date.
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.
Each count of sexual assault that Forte is facing carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.