A complete failure of justice

Gotta hand it to USA TODAY (all caps, as God intended) for uncovering the distressing case of Leonard Forte, a retired cop from New York state who was accused and convicted in 1988 of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old Vermont girl. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and that’s when things got weird. In 1995, facing a second trial, Forte claimed he was on death’s door and that the stress of a trial would surely kill him.

And then… nothing.

For almost 25 years.

Well, not entirely “nothing”. The case would occasionally get another look, Forte would claim ill health, and back into the deep freeze it went.

If USA TODAY is to be believed, the prosecutor overseeing the case — longtime assistant attorney general David Tartter — wasn’t exactly devoting a lot of energy to it. “Neglect” seems the best descriptor for his approach.

Meanwhile, the accuser is now 45 years old and living with the consequences of the assault. Forte is 78 and still claims to be dying, but has been enjoying a pretty decent retirement in Florida. And the chances of bringing him to justice appeared faint, thanks to this:

The USA TODAY Network found that Vermont officials have destroyed materials key to the prosecution of Forte, including most of the original trial record. The mistaken destruction of transcripts and court audio recordings appears to be due to the unprecedented age of the case, by far the oldest open prosecution in Vermont and certainly one of the oldest in the country where the defendant is not a fugitive.

… Michele Dinko, the alleged victim, said in a recent interview that Tartter has expressed to her that he has little hope left of prosecuting Forte. Dinko said Tartter also told her privately that having the case loom over Forte for so many decades is its own kind of punishment.

That’d be a hard “no,” Mr. Tartter.

Now that the case has been publicized in the press, the Burlington Free Press reports, Vermont officials have suddenly gotten up off their asses. Former state Senate president pro tem John Campbell, now the executive director of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, has stepped in to “assist” Tartter. Campbell promises a new trial for Forte, which might prove difficult due to the destruction of court records.

But here’s the real bullshit. Campbell claims this belated activity has nothing to do with the USA TODAY article. No sirree. Sheer coincidence.

In an interview with an USA TODAY Network reporter this week, prosecutor Campbell said that about a week before the investigative story was published, Tartter discussed the case with Campbell because they work in the same office building. After that, Campbell volunteered to assist with the case…

Ahh, the rich aroma of manure. We’re supposed to believe that John Campbell, whose tenure atop the Vermont Senate was characterized by a studied avoidance of action whenever possible, spontaneously inserted himself into this pig’s breakfast after decades of official neglect — just as the story was coming out in the press.

Yeah, no.

Campbell is obviously trying to cover for a longtime colleague’s apparent malfeasance, and the legal system’s utter failure to obtain justice for Ms. Dinko. This ought to be a scandal, and I hope it is, Campbell’s furious attempts at damage control notwithstanding.

Tartter himself has not spoken to USA TODAY reporters, you’ll be shocked to hear. Perhaps he has a good explanation, although for the life of me I can’t think of one. Tartter has spent many years in the attorney general’s office, and is presumably a member in good standing of Vermont’s tiny legal community. Color me cynical, but I have a hard time believing that his role in the Forte case will come in for the kind of scrutiny it deserves.

Tartter has served under each of the last two attorneys general, Bill Sorrell and T.J. Donovan. You think the latter, with his obvious bias for the status quo, is anxious to explore this? Including how he and Sorrell have overseen their legal staff? Like, how can an assistant AG simply drop the ball for twenty-odd years on an open felony case? And allow the destruction of the evidence?

There are uncomfortable questions to answer, and the leaders of our legal community are very fond of their comforts.

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