Leniart loses latest appeal in Montville cold case murder
George Leniart, convicted of kidnapping, raping and fatally strangling 15-year-old Montville resident April Dawn Pennington in May 1996, has lost his latest appeal.
Leniart, 54, a commercial fisherman and convicted sex offender prior to his arrest in the cold case murder, was convicted at a trial in 2010 despite the fact that the victim's body was never recovered. He is serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole while pursuing every available avenue of appeal.
On Friday, the state Appellate Court issued a decision indicating that Leniart had not been denied his constitutional right during his 2010 trial in New London Superior Court, when Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed ruled that a 90-minute video of an interview of a key witness was inadmissible.
The defense had argued that showing the jury the recorded interview of Patrick "PJ" Allain, a high school classmate of Pennington, conducted by state Trooper Timothy Madden prior to a polygraph examination, would have helped jurors assess his credibility. During the pre-polygraph interview, Madden suggested that Allain, a potential suspect in the teen's murder, could be convicted and sentenced to death but assured him that he would receive favorable treatment if he cooperated with the police.
At Leniart's trial, Allain admitted he was testifying for the state in an effort to have his own sentence reduced for an unrelated sexual assault.
Judge Robert J. Devlin wrote in the appellate decision, also signed by Judge Michael R. Sheldon, that Leniart's attorney, Norman A. Pattis, had conducted a lengthy cross-examination of Allain that enabled the jury to assess Allain's credibility.
"Because the defendant was permitted to present ample evidence from which the jury could appropriately draw inferences relating to Allain's motives and credibility, his rights to confrontation and to present a defense were preserved," Devlin wrote. "Accordingly, the defendant's arguments that his constitutional rights were violated because the exclusion of the videotape 'prohibited relevant inquiry reasonably aimed at eliciting facts from which the jury might decide to disbelieve (Allain)' and that he was prevented from demonstrating Allain's motives and biases are unavailing."
Appellate Judge Eliot D. Prescott, who in an earlier decision had concluded the trial judge improperly excluded the videotape, wrote a separate, concurring decision noting he is bound by a subsequent state Supreme Court ruling that Leniart had failed to demonstrate that the improper exclusion of the videotape was harmful to him.
"The state is grateful that this chapter is finally concluded, and we hope it gives April Pennington's family some peace," said New London prosecutor Stephen M. Carney, who had tried the case and has argued against all of Leniart's appeals.
Leniart's appellate attorney, Lauren M. Weisfeld, declined to comment. Leniart can petition the Supreme Court to review. The highest court already has ruled once in the case by overturning the Appellate Court decision that Leniart should have a new trial.
The victim's family has since moved to Pleasant Garden, N.C., where April's father, Walter Pennington, said by phone Friday that he tracks Leniart's case on the internet and regularly visits the Remembering April Dawn Pennington Facebook page.
"He's where he needs to be, and I'm sure the good Lord will keep him where he needs to be," Pennington said.
April was a sophomore in high school when she disappeared after kissing her parents goodnight, putting a teddy bear under the sheets of her bed to make it appear occupied and sneaked out of the family home on Orchard Drive in Montville.
Allain had offered chilling testimony at the trial that he and Leniart had picked up the teen and sexually assaulted her in Leniart's pickup truck. Allain testified that when Leniart dropped him off at home, the girl was still in the truck. He said Leniart told him the next day that he had killed April and disposed of her body.
Detectives from the state police Eastern District Major Crime Squad had searched extensively for her body without success, but were able to obtain a warrant for Leniart's arrest based on statements from Allain, a woman who had been sexually assaulted and strangled by Leniart in a similar manner to April, and several jailhouse witnesses who said Leniart confessed to the crimes.
Leniart, who has continued to proclaim his innocence, is currently housed at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. He has a pending habeas case, which is sometimes referred to as an appeal of last resort.