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A survivor of abuse, Michele Dinko is now a trauma nurse. She spoke to the Banner on Monday, sharing what it's like to live with the burden that former police investigator Leonard Forte placed upon her at age 12, when he sexually assaulted her.

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Justice is defined as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals.”

Judges hold vaulted positions, sitting highest in the courtroom, overseeing juries to dispense the justice that keeps us safe in our communities and ensure that those who harm us are punished.

A failure of justice is a tragedy for the victim, sparking a lifelong struggle when that victim is a child. A failure of justice is also a blow to society at large. We are less safe when our justice system fails us; we are less willing to trust in the system or expect fair resolution of our own victimization.

Justice failed 12-year-old Michele Dinko more than 30 years ago, and today Dinko is still grappling with the fallout.

In 1987, Dinko was a pre-teen living in Long Island when she spent a week with a friend in Landgrove. During the trip, the 12-year-old was sexually abused by the friend’s father, Leonard Forte, a crime especially horrific because Forte was a law enforcement officer at the time — a job that should have inspired trust in a child.

Dinko faced her assailant in the courtroom, testifying against Forte at the trial, and the jury convicted him of the crime. However, in an unimaginable decision, the late Judge Theodore Mandeville threw out the conviction, ruling that the prosecutor — a woman — was too emotional and biased the outcome. The blatant sexism of that ruling is impossible to ignore, much less rationalize or understand. Shame on Judge Mandeville.

No convicted assailant should be able to hide from justice behind a black robe. The Vermont Legislature should examine this case and make changes to ensure those convicted of crimes cannot, like Forte, slip through the system.

Charges were refiled in 1997, and since that time Vermont prosecutors have fought to bring Forte back to the state to face delayed justice. However, he used lies and deceit about his health to avoid extradition. Worse, he was able to manipulate the legal system to accomplish his goal, hiding out in Florida as the appeals process dragged on in Vermont. That is a failure of justice that spans decades.

Last week, shortly after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled against Forte’s latest appeal, he died at the age of 80. One can only hope Leonard Forte is finally, somewhere, facing his deserved justice.

But overlooked in this awful history is Dinko, who put her faith in the system to right the wrong done to her, only to learn that justice is not always blind. Sometimes, more often than we like to think, the villains win, even in a courtroom.

She describes struggling through her high school years and feeling mired in a lack of self-worth as a result of her assault. And that could have been her life’s story. But Dinko found the strength to turn her life around, marry and raise two children. She became a trauma nurse, a woman whose professional life is devoted to caring for others.

Dinko thanks those who fought on her behalf to bring Forte back to stand trial. “I still believe in the justice system. I know how many good people were trying to rectify what happened back then, and I appreciate what they did,” she told the Banner.

To those who failed her, Dinko said they’ll have to live with their actions, adding, “It’s not going to stop me from living my life.”

Justice in the courtroom failed. But true justice can be found in a life well-lived.

Michele Dinko found true justice.


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