Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan announced Friday he is assigning a special team to prosecute a sexual assault case that has been pending for more than 30 years. The case has been delayed over claims by the defendant, a former police detective, that he was dying.
In response to media scrutiny, Donovan is dumping the lead prosecutor who has been on the case for the past 25 years and spent most of that time working for the Attorney General’s Office before shifting to the state Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.
The move comes about two months after a USA Today expose highlighted decades of foot-dragging in getting the case resolved.
Donovan said in a statement Friday afternoon that the new prosecution team will include two former justices of the Vermont Supreme Court.
Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy will lead the prosecution of Leonard Forte of LaBelle, Florida, who is facing charges from 1987 that he repeatedly sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl in Bennington County, according to the statement.
Joining Purdy will be Jeffrey Amestoy, a former Vermont attorney general and Vermont Supreme Court chief justice, and Brian Burgess, a former deputy attorney general and Vermont Supreme Court associate justice.
In making that decision, Donovan is pushing aside the longtime lead prosecutor on the case, David Tartter.
Tartter was handed the case in the mid-1990s when he was an assistant attorney general and kept it when he moved to his current role in the state Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.
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Donovan said Friday that although Tartter may be listed as an assistant attorney general in court filings in the case, he hasn’t had that job for several years.
“When he started prosecuting this case it was as an attorney general’s case,” Donovan said. “My understanding is at some point in time he left the Attorney General’s Office, he went to the Department of State’s Attorneys, and he took the case with him.”
Donovan added, “I’m assuming that in a notice of appearance with the court it has an assistant attorney general; I don’t know, that’s what I’m assuming because the case has always been at least on paper an AG’s case.”
Donovan said he first became aware of the case and its long delays from a press report in November.
“I wasn’t aware of it, it was out of my office,” Donovan said. “The first I heard about it was in the USA Today article.”
In that report, Tartter is identified as an assistant attorney general.
“He never worked for me,” said Donovan, who took office as Vermont’s attorney general in 2017.
Donovan said his special team will work “collaboratively” with the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys.
Tartter was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.
John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys, said Friday that Tartter moved over to his office around 2016 and kept the Forte case on his docket, in which he also specializes in appeal litigation.
Campbell, who supported the AG’s move to appoint a special team to prosecute the case, laid the blame for the delays on Forte, and his doctor’s notes that stated he was on “death’s bed.”
Campbell added, “The only way to actually keep this case alive was to actually say, ‘OK, fine, we’ll continue on until we feel confident that we can show that you are capable of having a trial and come back to Vermont.’”
The alternative, Campbell said, would risk having the case dismissed outright.
Campbell said, the USA Today report revealed that Forte didn’t appear as ill as portrayed.
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That investigation by USA Today, Naples Daily News and the Burlington Free Press brought to light the extraordinary delays, in large part due to Forte, now 78, claiming for years that he was dying and that the stress of a trial would hasten his death.
However, USA Today reported that despite his dire health claims, Forte, a former detective with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in New York, was living in Florida.
According to the USA Today report, a jury in 1988 convicted Forte of three counts of sexual assault. However, Judge Theodore Mandeville threw out the convictions, finding that the prosecutor during the closing argument had been overly emotional.
Mandeville stated that prosecutor displayed “a fury seldom seen this side of hell,” USA Today reported.
That has led to the decades-long path to a retrial.
Donovan said Friday that Amestoy and Burgess approached him about joining the prosecution team in Forte’s case in light of the USA Today article.
Both Amestoy and Burgess, according to Donovan’s release, “led the State’s initial effort to end delay and reinstate Mr. Forte’s previous conviction” back when they both worked in the Attorney General’s Office.
“We’re happy to have them,” Donovan said.
Forte, who in the past has represented himself, is now represented by Susan Keane McManus, a public defender, according to court filings. McManus could not immediately be reached Friday for comment.
Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, reached late Friday afternoon, declined comment on the move by the AG’s office.
“I’ll comment generally, that really old cases are really hard to prove because they’re really old cases with really old evidence,” Valerio said.
Donovan said he made his decision to appoint the special prosecution team because he viewed it as the best way to try to bring justice to the victim, who is now 45.
However, that may prove to be a difficult task for the prosecution as the USA Today article stated that “Vermont officials have destroyed materials key to the prosecution of Forte, including most of the original trial record.”
Donovan’s announcement Friday comes ahead of a status conference set for Monday in Forte’s case in Bennington County criminal court.
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