Convicted killer of April Dawn Pennington fights back from prison

George M. Leniart, who is serving life in prison without the possibility of release for the 1996 kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington, is working the legal system hard from within the walls of the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

The 48-year-old former Montville resident, a convicted sex offender who was found guilty of capital felony and murder in 2010 even though Pennington's body was never found, is represented by public defenders and private attorneys in pending legal actions in state and federal courts.

He is appealing his 2010 conviction by a jury in New London Superior Court and is represented by attorney Lauren Weisfield. Senior Assistant State's Attorney Stephen M. Carney, one of the lawyers who prosecuted the case, is preparing his brief in the case, which is before the state Appellate Court.

Leniart also has a pending habeas corpus petition, a civil action in which he is challenging his conviction. The Bansley Law Office of New Haven is representing him, and the case is scheduled for trial in 2015. One of the firm's attorneys, Jennifer B. Smith of the Bansley Law Offices of New Haven, this week sent a letter to New London Superior Court asking a judge to remove Leniart's name from the state's sex offender registry.

Leniart was required to register as a sex offender after he pleaded guilty in 1996 to sexually assaulting a 13-year-old. He was sentenced to five years in prison for the offense, and the victim, as an adult, testified at his murder trial that Leniart had strangled her to the point of unconsciousness and repeatedly raped her in a trailer at his parents' home on Massapeag Side Road in Montville.

Smith writes in her letter to the court that the statute under which Leniart was convicted refers to "a non-violent offense" and that he should only have been required to register as a sex offender for 10 years. Smith, reached by phone Thursday, declined to comment. The New London Judicial District's presiding judge for criminal matters, Hillary B. Strackbein, is expected to rule on the request.

Meanwhile, two Connecticut law firms are representing Leniart pro bono, or without pay, in cases pending in federal court.

The Wiggin & Dana law firm's New Haven office was assigned to represent Leniart in a civil rights lawsuit in which he claims that state police and parole officers conducted warrantless searches of his residence and unlawfully arrested him on two separate occasions.

The case was headed to trial last year but is now on hold while U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly B. Fitzsimmons considers the firm's motion to incur expenses in the case, or hire an expert witness at the government's expense.

Another firm, the Hershman Legal Group of New Haven, represents Leniart in yet another federal lawsuit claiming correction officials at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield breached the attorney-client privilege he enjoys, reading and removing from him legal paperwork that he needed for his defense in the capital felony case. The case is headed for trial in April 2015 unless a settlement is reached.

k.florin@theday.com

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