A miscarriage of justice over 34 years: the Leonard Forte case filled with gender bias, frustration, deception, denial of equal justice | Local news

BENNINGTON – Thirty-four years and the cultural awakening of a nation separate two prosecutors at opposite ends of the Leonard Forte case, accused in 1987 of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Forte died last Wednesday before justice was done.

Both prosecutors share a vision of those years – charges and trials, questionable dismissal based on even more questionable reasoning. They see it as a story of decades of delays, sidestepped allegations and legal maneuvering, a master class on how the justice system plays out in Vermont, filled with gender bias, frustration, deception and, ultimately, , of the possible denial of equal justice. under the law.

Theresa DiMauro was the prosecutor at the start of this case, the lawyer who sought – and ultimately failed – to put Forte behind bars for her crime. She felt a pinch in her stomach when she learned of Forte’s death last week.

“I was devastated,” she said.

Assistant State Attorney Linda Purdy took the reigns of the case last year, but in the end, through the many delays, experts, hearings, new charges and legal maneuvering, justice was finally too evasive than she had been to DiMauro for three decades. before.

DiMauro, now a retired judge, speaks for the first time about what happened in 1988, how then-judge Theodore Mandeville overturned a unanimous jury verdict of guilty in the Forte case, based on of his ruling that prosecutor DiMauro was “too emotional.” “

“This is the first time that I can comment publicly on this,” DiMauro said on Monday. “I became a judge after the case was dismissed in 1993 and I held this position until March of last year when I retired, so it would not have been appropriate for me to comment. But now it’s different. I never meant to harm anything, but I always hoped it would someday be reshuffled. “

Forte died at his home in LaBelle, Florida, where he moved shortly after his conviction was overturned and his retirement from law enforcement. For the past several decades, Forte has fought extradition to Vermont, using his many health issues, deception, and perceived inability to stand trial as a delaying tactic to drive a legal wedge between him and the justice system.

In 1988, Forte was tried for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl at her vacation home in Landgrove a year earlier. Forte, a New York State investigator from Long Island at the time, was convicted by a jury of all three counts of the assault. However, then-trial judge Mandeville sided with a post-verdict defense petition that lead prosecutor, then state prosecutor DiMauro, had been “too emotional” at trial, unduly influencing the jury. Mandeville rejected the conviction.

Since then, Forte and his team of lawyers have used many loopholes in the justice system to fight extradition to Vermont to stand trial again on the charges.

“It was a miscarriage of justice,” DiMauro said. “There is no doubt in my mind that this was discrimination on the basis of sex, not only against me, but also against the victim. It was used as a means to overturn a jury verdict. The language used by the judge made it clear what the motivation was. “

DiMauro still thinks Mandeville somehow blamed her when the court reporter came out in the middle of the trial and used language that was ultimately used by the defense to claim bias in the trial. ‘case. “He blamed me for it,” DiMauro said. “He said the court reporter left because I was going too fast, but I was just passionate about finding justice for the victim. The truth is, I wasn’t emotional. I was exhausted. It was very hard.

The court reporter never returned, she recalls, and the rest of the trial, even the pleadings, had to be taped. “That’s what he said in court, that he blamed me, and the defense put it in their motion for a new trial,” she said. “They grabbed that, as did the judge in withdrawing the jury’s verdict. “

“Women, unlike men, are accused of being too emotional,” DiMauro said, “but men are never accused of this. Using that term clearly for most people and I would indicate that the judge was biased against it. me just because I was a woman. It was also in the 80’s, not like today, so nothing ever happened to the judge as a result. “

She said her goal was to repair the damage by securing the restoration of the verdict – for the sake of the victim and for justice.

“There is no doubt in my mind that he is guilty. The jury felt the same. Twelve people convicted him of three crimes, each lasting 20 years, and the judge simply let him go.

When asked if the decision weighed on her later in her career, DiMauro noted that it is not very unusual to be treated differently if you are a woman in the 80s by others. lawyers and litigants, even judges.

“Some men even today think that you are going to favor the woman because you are a woman, so you always try to bend over backwards to try to make it clear that you base your decisions on the evidence, that it is nothing. to do with being on one side or the other, ”she said. “I always had to be aware of this and try to be clear that it wouldn’t be a factor.”

Speaking of the affair, DiMauro chose her words carefully, pausing to think about the ramifications of the words on people she doesn’t know.

“Looking back, I was really… upset when this decision was made. The only basis for this decision he made was me. There are always requests for new trials after a trial ends. Typically, defense attorneys will say the evidence was insufficient or the charges fell short of what happened. Yet almost always it’s based on the law, fairly straightforward. In this case, the judge said something about me in open court which the defense used as the basis for the dismissal motion, and then the judge dismissed the charges. Just like that.”

DiMauro remains focused on the victim. “I was devastated for her. She was 16 when she was reversed. It happened when she was 12, so four years later there had been no justice. I felt bad for what she went through. All that time has passed, how long has it all taken. Now she’s in her 40s, and it’s the same. We tried everything to get it back to where we were, but it didn’t work out that way.

DiMauro still believes it can happen, even with today’s “awakened” movement. “It depends on what state you are in. What are they basing a decision on? I have no doubt that it could still happen, but I don’t know if it would be so blatant and if it did, it wouldn’t be so difficult to undo it.

This year, there was a silver lining that Forte would finally be brought to justice, with the Vermont Supreme Court dismissing his latest extradition appeal last week. But Forte’s death put an end to that effort. Purdy, the deputy prosecutor, echoes the thoughts of the woman who came before her so many years ago.

“The criminal justice system did not understand in this case what these delays did to this victim, what it would do to any victim in a case like this, especially a sex crime against a minor.” Purdy said. “First and foremost, I know we need to protect the rights of the accused, but don’t victims have rights too? The rights of victims are important. They must also be protected and claimed. She was only 12 years old. I think we need to take a long look at why it took so long. It is the very abrupt and unfortunate end of a very long and frustrating affair.

Purdy looked a lot like DiMauro.

“I am devastated,” she said.

Purdy described the type of person the victim has become. “She is an incredibly strong, patient and wise person. She has lived a generous and caring life of service to others, a trauma nurse, one of our essential workers, all without ever seeing justice or having closure. Yet despite all of this, she tried to put it back in its proper place. We always knew we were going to have to fight for justice in this case, especially after such injustice on the part of the trial judge in this case.

Purdy and DiMauro are two professional prosecutors, both women, both seeking justice 34 years apart. Both feel the frustration of a system that has been played for reasons that make no sense.

“He played the system and he won,” said DiMauro.

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