ITHACA, N.Y. — During closing statements in a child sexual assault case, the defense attorney told jurors that his client was a hard working man who opened his home to those in need — and then was falsely accused of crimes by a person he tried to help.

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The trial for Groton man Howard Leonard, 67, started Monday. He’s charged with felonies for first-degree sexual abuse and first-degree attempted sexual abuse, along with a misdemeanor for endangering the welfare of a child.

A 13-year-old girl, who Leonard knew, accused him of putting his fingers up her shorts and, on a different occasion, pulling her onto a sofa and trying to unzip her pants. The crimes allegedly happened in January or February of 2014.

Leonard has maintained his innocence.

Related — Tompkins Prosecutor: Teen’s sexual assault “ruined her life.”

The crux of defense attorney Richard Van Donsel’s argument has been, in his words, the lack of evidence in the case.

He said not only were there no witnesses to the crime — which reportedly may have happened in a home with two other people in it — but the prosecution has not provided a time for when the incident occurred.

“It’s hard to defend a negative,” Van Donsel said.

He said Leonard is a had working man who was a truck driver until he was injured in the spring of 2014.

During the time frame for the alleged crimes, Leonard and his wife of more than 20 years had opened up their home to a friend in need.

“It’s how we would want to be if we found out a (person) … was in a jam or in trouble,” Van Donsel said.

He said he does not want to disparage the victim, but said the teen may not have been thinking of the long-term consequences of her actions when she, allegedly falsely, accused Leonard of the crimes.

He said the teen may have been struggling with her home life and to get her mother’s attention. Her mother had recently had a baby and had a boyfriend.

In August 2014, when she reported the crime, the mother had suggested sending her to Leonard’s house for a time — something she said she did not want to happen.

That’s when the teen reported the abuse.

“Could she have contemplated two years later that (they’d be) here in a court room? I doubt it.” he said. “It’s hard to back down.”

He said the teen may have just not wanted to go to Leonard’s house and told a lie that, “…blossomed into something far beyond what anybody could have considered.”

Van Donsel asked, “Has she (Franklin) proven Howard Leonard guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?”

He said “maybes, probablys” are not enough to send Leonard to jail.

The jury began deliberating just after 11 a.m.

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.