Published June 23. 2010 4:00AM
A Superior Court judge told George M. Leniart he is "a sexual predator in the true sense of the word" as she sentenced him Tuesday to life in prison without the possibility of release for the 1996 kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington.
The girl's parents, who have since moved to North Carolina, did not attend the sentencing, but a former school friend, a squad of state troopers and Leniart's ex-wife listened as Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed imposed the mandatory sentence for capital felony. Jongbloed said Leniart took the life of a beautiful 15-year-old girl for his own gratification.
"The loss to the victim's family and friends is unimaginable and is every parent's worst nightmare," Jongbloed said. "I hope the family can find some closure, if that's even possible, from these procedures."
A jury convicted Leniart, a repeat sex offender, in March following a trial that included testimony from a woman who was raped by Leniart as a teenager and from jailhouse informants who said Leniart bragged of getting away with Pennington's murder.
New London state's attorneys John P. Gravalec-Pannone and Stephen M. Carney had brought the case to trial despite the difficulty of proving a murder without a body.
April Pennington sneaked out of her family's Uncasville home on May 29, 1996, and was never seen again. Police suspected foul play and searched wells, waterways and wooded areas for her body. Leniart, who lived nearby, was a suspect, but it took police 12 years to build a case against him.
In March, a jury found Leniart, 44, guilty of three counts of capital felony and one count of murder.
Leniart opted not to testify at his trial, but he spoke for several minutes Tuesday, declaring himself innocent and promising to appeal.
"This whole case is based on conjecture and perjury," he said. "If I committed this crime, I would have taken the 15-year plea deal that was offered."
Leniart blamed the murder on Patrick J. "PJ" Allain, a classmate of Pennington who was a key witness for the state. Allain testified that he and Leniart, who was 30 at the time, picked up the girl after she sneaked out of her home.
Allain said Leniart drove them to a wooded area in Ledyard where they drank and smoked marijuana before he and Leniart sexually assaulted Pennington. Allain said Leniart brought him home and drove away with Pennington in his pickup truck. He said Leniart told him the next day that he had dragged her into the woods, strangled her and disposed of her body.
Allain, who is serving a 10-year sentence for an unrelated sexual assault, said he is hoping the state will shorten his sentence in exchange for his cooperation.
Defense attorney Norman A. Pattis emphasized the state's reliance on Allain and other "jailhouse snitches," and Leniart said Tuesday that the police had set him up by having "the news" print articles containing false information about him and going to the prison and offering sentence modifications "to anyone who would talk."
At the trial, Pattis attempted to call an expert on the unreliability of jailhouse informants, but the judge denied his request, saying the subject matter was not outside the common knowledge of the jury.
Pattis said Tuesday that he was "shocked and dismayed" when the judge permitted testimony from a woman who, at 13, had been raped and nearly strangled by Leniart. Leniart had been charged with that crime and was free on bail when Pennington disappeared. Juries usually are not allowed to hear about a defendant's criminal past, or so-called "prior misconduct," but Jongbloed ruled the woman could tell the jury her story because it illustrated "a common scheme."
Allain also was involved in that crime, which took place in 1995. Leniart pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Pattis said it was futile to argue his objections at sentencing.
"You can only take one life of Mr. Leniart, and that's the one that will be taken today," Pattis said.
Carney, the prosecutor, said Leniart's crimes have continued to impact Pennington's family and friends. Pennington's mother, Hazel Pennington, has been ill and was unable to attend the trial. Her father, Walter Pennington, had cried on the witness stand as he recalled his daughter's disappearance.
Carney said it was appropriate that Leniart is being removed from society, that he "never be among us again."
"When he was out, a free man, he was a predator," Carney said.
Referencing Leniart's planned appeals, he added, "The state will be here for all time to assure that for all time the defendant will not be released."
State police Sgt. William Bundy, supervisor of the detective unit that investigated the case, said after the sentencing that he was proud of the detectives and hopeful this would be the first step for healing for all of Leniart's victims. Bundy also renewed his promise to Pennington's family, saying that if the girl's body could be found, "we will find her."