Defense will challenge missing body at trial

By Karen Florin

A key issue at the upcoming murder trial of George M. Leniart will be whether the state can convince a jury that a murder actually took place.

Leniart, a 43-year-old convicted sex offender from Montville, is charged with kidnapping, raping and killing 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington on May 24, 1996. The teenager disappeared from her parents' home on Orchard Drive and was never heard from again.

State police suspected foul play early on and conducted searches throughout the region, pumping and draining wells, employing cadaver dogs on the Leniart property on Massapeag Side Road and scouring wooded areas throughout southeastern Connecticut.

Though they never recovered April's body, detectives continued to follow up leads and conduct interviews over the years, and convinced the New London state's attorney's office in April 2008 to sign a warrant charging Leniart, a longtime suspect, with killing the teenager.

Leniart has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial for three counts of capital felony and one count of murder on Jan. 25.

As jury selection began on Monday, the fact that April's body has never been recovered quickly became an issue.

"You may hear testimony that April Pennington's body has never been found," prosecutor John P. Gravalec-Pannone told the first potential juror. He asked the woman, a retired nurse, whether she would have any problem following Judge Stuart M. Schimelman's instructions on how the jury was to consider evidence about the lack of a body. The woman said no.

Defense attorney Norman A. Pattis followed up by asking the woman what she thought when she heard the charges against Leniart. She said she thought the crime was "a terrible thing." She said she had read about the case, but did not know a body was never found.

"From our perspective, there's a question of whether there is a body to be found," Pattis said. "For all we know, Ms. Pennington is alive and well."

The defense exercised one of its peremptory challenges, and the woman was excused from jury service. Pattis then objected to any line of questioning about the body during jury selection, and Judge Schimelman ordered the attorneys to not bring up the subject.

Pannone said outside of potential jurors' presence that a number of witnesses would testify that they have not seen April Pennington since the May 1996 day when she sneaked out through her first-floor bedroom window. The prosecution's witness list indicates some of those who could be called to testify include April's parents, Hazel and Walter Pennington, and her brother, Walter.

A friend who claimed to have seen Pennington at a Blockbuster Video store in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1999 also could be called to testify. Police followed up the reported sighting with no results.

Leniart was living with his family on Massapeag Side Road in Uncasville when the Pennington family moved to nearby Orchard Drive in 1994. Walter Pennington was stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton until November 1996. The family has since relocated to North Carolina.

The state police said April sneaked out of her house and went out with her friend, PJ Allain, and Leniart in Leniart's pickup truck. Allain, who may have been one of the last people to see April, is also on the list of potential witnesses.

Though Leniart is charged with three capital crimes, Pannone has said the state is not seeking the death penalty because the body has never been found. The state is, however, seeking a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.

The jury selection will resume on Wednesday. The panel will be comprised of 12 jurors and three alternates.

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