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Rape victim testimony called key to Leniart murder trial

A 28-year-old Norwich woman who was raped by George M. Leniart in 1995 cried when she relived the crime on the witness stand at his murder trial Monday, but said she was determined to tell her story.

She is, in fact, willing to return to the stand today to describe the ordeal to even more people if allowed by Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed.

Accompanied to New London Superior Court by her best friend, the victim, who said she has worked as a pharmacy technician, testified outside the presence of the jury. The state contends the sexual assault has enough in common with the alleged kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of April Dawn Pennington to merit the jury's attention.

Ruling expected today

The judge's decision, expected when the trial resumes this morning, could make or break the case for the state, which is prosecuting Leniart though the victim's body has not been recovered. April disappeared from her family's home in Montville on May 29, 1996, and was not seen by them again.

"I don't think the state can win its case without this evidence," defense attorney Norman A. Pattis told the judge as he argued the woman should not be allowed to testify in front of the jury.

Juries usually are not allowed to hear about a defendant's criminal past, or so-called "prior misconduct," but prosecutors John P. Gravalec-Pannone and Stephen M. Carney argue the sexual assault is an exception because it illustrates "a common scheme."

Leniart was charged with raping the victim, a 13-year-old middle school student, in November 1995, and was free on bond when April Pennington, 15, disappeared on May 29, 1996. Leniart later pleaded guilty to the November sexual assault and was sentenced to four years in prison.

The woman said she was 13 years old when Leniart, who called himself "Chris," raped her in a trailer at his parents' home on Massapeag Side Road in Montville. She said she and the 30-year-old man drank together for several hours while waiting for her boyfriend, Patrick "PJ" Allain, and that she attempted to leave when she found out her boyfriend would not be coming.

"I tried to get out and the door was locked and he had told me I wasn't leaving," the woman testified. "He pushed me over to the bed and was choking me and having sex with me."

She said she was in and out of consciousness and that the ordeal felt like it lasted "forever." She said she woke up in the morning and asked Leniart if he could leave and he told her to look in the mirror.

"I saw red marks all over my face and choke marks," she said.

Leniart left the trailer to make a phone call, telling her, "If I ran he would hunt me down and kill me," the woman testified. She said she ran to the closest house and called her father and police.

In the Pennington case, Allain testified that he arranged for Leniart to pick up April and that the three of them drove to a wooded area in Ledyard and drank and smoked marijuana. Allain said both men raped April and that she was still in Leniart's pickup when Leniart dropped him off at home. Allain said Leniart told him the next day that he had fatally strangled April and disposed of her body.

Carney listed a number of elements common to both crimes, starting with Allain being the one who "gets the girls" for Leniart and including the girls' ages and small stature and the fact that Leniart provided them with alcohol.

"Both were choked," Carney said. "Both passed out."

Pattis argued the similarities between the two crimes are "superficial" and to allow the jury to hear the testimony would be too prejudicial.

Also Monday, the judge listened to testimony from a potential defense witness, Loyola Law School Professor Alexandra Natapoff, before ruling that Natapoff, an expert on jailhouse informants, would not be allowed to go in front of the jury. The state has called four convicted felons, including Allain, to testify against Leniart. Natapoff was prepared to testify that the government has created a market for information in the criminal justice system where informants can trade information for leniency and that the use of criminal informants is a secretive process and a major source of wrongful convictions.

The judge said the subject matter is not outside the "ken," or common knowledge, of the jury and that the court has given the defense a wide latitude to discredit the witnesses during cross examination.

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