State Supreme Court hears arguments in Montville cold case murder

In this April 1, 2008 file photo, George M. Leniart, 42, of Montville is arraigned in New London Superior Court and charged with the murder of 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington, who disappeared from her Montville home in May 1996. Twenty-two years after 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington disappeared from her Montville home, the state court heard arguments Wednesday in the appeal of Leniart, who is serving life in prison for kidnapping, raping and fatally strangling her in 1996. (WTNH, News Channel 8)
In this April 1, 2008 file photo, George M. Leniart, 42, of Montville is arraigned in New London Superior Court and charged with the murder of 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington, who disappeared from her Montville home in May 1996. Twenty-two years after 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington disappeared from her Montville home, the state court heard arguments Wednesday in the appeal of Leniart, who is serving life in prison for kidnapping, raping and fatally strangling her in 1996. (WTNH, News Channel 8)

Twenty-two years after 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington disappeared from her Montville home, the state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in the appeal of the man who is serving life in prison for kidnapping, raping and fatally strangling her in May 1996.

The full panel of seven justices heard two hours of argument in the case of George M. Leniart, who was represented by attorney Lauren Weisfeld, chief of legal services for the Office of the Chief Public Defender. Senior Assistant State's Attorney Stephen M. Carney, who had prosecuted the case in New London Superior Court in 2010, argued on behalf of the state.

Weisfeld, arguing first, said it was an extraordinarily serious case and unlike any other in Connecticut. She called it a tragedy for both Pennington and Leniart and quickly introduced the facts that the state had no DNA, blood evidence or fingerprints, since Pennington's body was never found.

"It does give one pause when Mr. Leniart is serving life without the possibility of parole and we really don't have proof this girl is dead," Weisfeld said.

The court will issue a ruling at a later date. In the past year, the lawyers have submitted hundreds of pages of briefs covering three topics and citing dozens of relevant cases. The justices also received a videotaped interview of a key witness, Patrick "PJ" Allain, that the state Appellate Court ruled was erroneously kept from the jury during Leniart's trial.

A convicted sex offender from Uncasville, Leniart was identified as a suspect early, but investigators struggled to produce enough evidence for an arrest. Leniart denied involvement, and Pennington's body was never recovered despite exhaustive searches of wells, woodlands and waterways. The state police Eastern District Major Crime Squad obtained a warrant for Leniart's arrest in 2008 that relied on testimony from Allain, a convicted felon, and jailhouse informants who said Leniart had admitted while they were cellmates that he killed the teen. 

Allain, a classmate of Pennington, offered chilling testimony at the trial that he and Leniart had sexually assaulted the teen in Leniart's pickup truck after Pennington sneaked out of her parents' home.

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.

Convicted in an unrelated sexual assault case, Allain received a sentence reduction after Leniart was convicted and sentenced.

In June 2016, the Appellate Court overturned Leniart's conviction and ordered a new trial. The appellate judges wrote that the trial judge, Barbara Bailey Jongbloed, should have allowed the defense to introduce Allain's videotape interview and improperly excluded defense testimony from an expert on the reliability of jailhouse informant testimony. The Supreme Court accepted the state's appeal of those issues and agreed to re-examine the appeals court decision on the "corpus delecti" rule, which prohibits introduction of a confession unless the prosecution introduces independent evidence to prove the crime actually occurred.

Leniart is being held at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, and on its website, the Department of Correction lists his sentence length as 999 years, 99 months, 999 days. He was not present for Wednesday's argument, as is typical for Supreme Court proceedings.

During the corpus delecti argument, Weisfeld suggested that if the justices find there was insufficient evidence to convict Leniart, he should be acquitted without a new trial.

"Do you need the body?" Justice Raheem Mullins asked. "In every case where there's no body, you can't have a murder conviction?"

If that were the rule, Justice Maria Araujo Kahn commented, "everybody would make sure they got rid of the body really, really well."

Weisfeld said some trace of physical evidence should be required and noted that Pennington had talked about running away and that an old friend claimed he saw her in a video store in Virginia Beach, Va.,  three years after her disappearance. The state police investigated and discredited that report.

Carney argued there was sufficient evidence that Pennington was murdered, noting she was only 15, had no money, never came in contact with friends or family again and never used her Social Security number. The fact that her body was not recovered "was corroborative itself," Carney said, since Leniart had boasted to the jailhouse informants that police would never find the body.

Carney argued the trial judge had properly excluded the testimony of Alexandra Natapoff, a renowned expert on the reliability of jailhouse informants, because the subject matter was within the general knowledge of the jury. The judge, Jongbloed, had listened to Natapoff's testimony outside the presence of the jury before granting the state's motion to preclude it. Natapoff would have testified that informants routinely trade information for leniency in their own cases and other benefits.

He cited a federal court ruling in which the court came to the same conclusion as Jongbloed, "that juries naturally know jails are miserable places" and that prisoners will attempt to improve their fate. Justice Andrew McDonald asked Carney how jurors not exposed to the inner workings of the criminal justice system would have knowledge of the ways prisoners could benefit from cooperating. Carney said the professor did not testify about sentence modifications and other details of law enforcement-informant agreements and that the judge gave the defense leeway to get at the information during cross-examination of the informants.

Those cross-examinations, conducted by attorney Norman A. Pattis at the trial, were "brutal," Carney said, and went on for hours. The jurors heard that Allain and others were hoping for sentence reductions.

An interview of Allain prior to a polygraph examination he submitted to during the police investigation was the subject of the final argument. During the 90-minute polygraph "pretest," state police Detective Timothy Madden told Allain that he wasn't "the big fish" and that he could avoid being charged with Pennington's murder if he helped the state. During Leniart's trial, Leniart's attorney attempted to introduce the videotape, even though polygraph examinations are not admissible in court.

The state claims the Appellate Court erred when it concluded the trial judge barred any use of the videotape, since Jongbloed said in her ruling that the videotape might be allowed into evidence at a later date. Though the defense attorney had questioned Allain about the contents of the interview at the trial, Weisfeld argued that the jury didn't get to see his demeanor during the interview, or, as the Appellate Court had noted in its ruling, didn't get to see the interview "in living color."

k.florin@theday.com

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