HOW RICHARD GOT HIS FRIENDS AND WHY HE NEEDS THEM
By ROBERT PERSKE
It all happened on a bright spring day, May 6, 1992. I walked into Hartford Superior Court A2 for the first time. I sat in the audience on the left side behind the defendant, Richard Lapointe of Manchester, Connecticut. It was the first day of his murder trial. I came because of an anonymous telephone tip. As the trial began, it hit me that I was sitting on the left side of the courtroom alone. Everyone else sat on the right side, behind the prosecutor, Rosita Creamer, who made it clear she would vigorously argue for Lapointe’s death.
Lapointe was a 46-year-old, five-foot-four man with intellectual disabilities. He was a soft, non-athletic man with an up-and-down thickness that even included his head. He wore thick glasses and hearing aids in both ears. When he grew up in Hartford the other kids gave him the obvious nickname, “Mister Magoo,”
I learned later that for all of his life, he had lived with the destructive effects of Dandy-Walker syndrome, a congenital brain malfunction that caused a buildup of cerebral fluid in his skull. Unfortunately, the condition was not diagnosed until age 15. The syndrome affected many of his physical and mental functions – including his eyesight, hearing, stamina, muscle coordination, and the ability to learn abstract concepts as well as sophisticated social skills. I also learned later that Lapointe walked a lot but he never ran. When he stood up too quickly, he experienced dizziness that he called “a rush.”
Even so, he was cocky. Later, when I asked him about his life, he quickly said, “I’m a survivor. I survived five brain operations.” When I asked how he handled taunts and jeers from others, he said, “It takes a bigger man to walk away.”
He married Karen Martin, a young woman with cerebral palsy. They became parents of a son named Sean that Lapointe still loves deeply. Sean was 9-years-old at the time of the his father’s arrestl. As a breadwinner for the family, Lapointe washed dishes in cafes. He was a faithful member of the Catholic Church and a regular member of the Knights of Columbus. He had no criminal record and no history of violence.
Even so, his life changed radically on July 4, 1989. On that holiday, Lapointe was helping his wife prepare for an evening picnic when the Manchester police called around 3:30 p.m. and asked him if he would come to headquarters. The officer on the phone promised to get him back in time for the picnic.
The policeman on the phone lied. As soon as he walked into the police station, an officer read him the Miranda warning. At that point, most people would become alarmed — but not Lapointe. He enjoyed visiting with officers who stopped in at the café where he worked. He saw them all as good friends.
After the Miranda reading, Lapointe was walked through two rooms containing large charts attached to the walls. Each chart listed forensic data that portrayed Lapointe as the killer. All of that data was merely a trick. Obviously, a professional poster maker spent long hours creating them. Later, on the witness stand, lead Detective Paul Lombardo testified that the posters were created as “devices for reducing the suspect’s inhibitions for telling the truth.” The posters proved to be a waste of money because Lapointe could not read or write.
Next, Lapointe was taken to an upstairs interrogation room where three detectives conducted a succession of one-on-one interrogations from 4:30 p.m. until 1:30 the next morning. In the first session Lombardo told Lapointe that the police had clear evidence showing that he raped and murdered his wife’s grandmother, 88-year-old Bernice Martin better than two years ago on March 8, 1987. Lombardo finally came out with the “first” confession which the detective had printed out in large block letters:
“ON MARCH 8, 1987, I WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR BERNICE MARTIN’S DEATH AND IT WAS AN ACCIDENT, MY MIND WENT BLANK.”
That wasn’t much of a confession for such a raging, athletically overpowering explosion of violence on an aged woman. Mrs. Martin received ten knife stabs in the back and one in the stomach. A ligature made from torn cloth was fashioned into a strangulation ligature around her neck and secured tightly with knots that a boy scout might make. Her wrists were lashed together and knotted in the same fashion. She was beaten about the face. It was learned later that she had been raped with a blunt object. A blunt object was also applied to the side of her neck in an attempt to force strangulation. After finishing with his attack the killer set the cottage on fire in three different places and fled.
Obviously, Lombardo wasn’t satisfied with confession #1. So he went into the interrogation room again and came out with Confession #2. This time it contained 157 words that were typed by Lombardo and signed by Lapointe – even though he could not read it. It ended with the words, “If the evidence shows that I was there, and that I killed her, then I killed her. But I don’t remember being there.”
While Lombardo worked on Richard, Detective Michael Morrissey went to his home and interrogated Lapointe’s wife, Karen. He wore a hidden microphone. Morrissey began by saying that Richard had confessed to murdering Mrs. Martin and he told Karen that their son would be taken away if she did not tell the truth. She did tell the truth. She stated that Richard was home with her at the time of the fatal assault.
Her alibi should have stopped Lombardo and Morrissey in their investigative tracks if they had only paid attention to the recorded words taken on Morrissey’s “wire.” Unfortunately, the officer’s will to believe that they had the real criminal in their grasp had already clouded their minds. On the witness stand, Lombardo was asked how he knew Lapointe was guilty. He said he knew because Lapointe had assumed a runner’s stance (He pointed his feet and leaned toward the door).
As strange as it may seem, Morrissey’s exculpatory tape recording was never played to the jury during Lapointe’s evidentiary phase of the trial.
Morrissey, upon returning to the police station, went in for Confession #3. As far as we can tell, he did not wear a wire like he did at the Lapointe home. Morrissey came out with a 212-word statement that was hand printed by the detective. It like the others was signed, even though Lapointe could not read. It was more detailed, but it all was based on written police reports.
Interestingly, Hartford Courant columnist Tom Condon, in his February 21, 1993, twelve-page article, “Reasonable Doubt,” showed how forensic experts testified that the crime did not happen the way the police reports said it did.
All these “troubles” began 18 years ago, and Richard Lapointe is still doing a life sentence plus 60 years. He would have gotten the death penalty if one brain surgeon had not pointed out the congenital malformations in his brain during the death penalty phase of the trial. Even so, the 60 years tacked onto a life sentence is so horribly final. Also, he lives in a “level four” pod in MacDougall Correctional Institute, which has been reserved mostly for well-guarded killers. Through the years, it has been interesting to watch correction officers assigned to the pod, looking at all of the convicted killers and then looking at this soft little Mr. Magoo and shaking their heads in amazement.
Why Richard Needs Friends
If there was ever a human being needed friends, it was Richard. After seeing this during the first week of the trial, I became agitated and upset. When I get that way I shout at others. So, sure enough, at 2 o’clock on Monday morning, I dialed colleagues in the field of intellectual disabilities and I yelled into their answering machines.
My early morning shouts paid off. When Monday’s court session began at 10 a.m., some 30 persons sat on the left side of the courtroom behind Richard. Many of those who appeared at that court session continue to be his friends today. Other local folks who learned about Lapointe’s plight have joined the group. Also hundreds who have learned about Richard’s situation have become friends at a distance, and some have even sent donations when it was needed for his defense.
As this website builds, it will report on numerous important happenings in the past 18 years. It will include:
· Personal stories by caring individuals who became involved in Richard’s fight.
· Observations of Richard’s situation by some of the nation’s leading forensic experts.
· A chronology of happenings, starting with Richard’s first trial in 1992 until the present.
· A report on a Connecticut Public Television documentary that featured Richard’s case (A Passion for Justice, CPTV, 11-28-94).
· Afterthoughts regarding the public forum on Richard’s plight that was held in Hartford (Convicting the Innocent, Aetna Auditorium, 9-16-95).
· The impact of the “60 Minutes” presentation of Richard’s case (Did He Do It? CBS/TV, 6-30-96)
· Nuances from Defending the Mentally Disabled (All Things Considered: National Public Radio, 6-26-04)
· Progress reports from the lawyers and investigators of Centurion Ministries.
Ours is an Uphill Battle
After the April 19, 1996, destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, the United States Congress pushed for a quick execution of the bomber. In doing so, it enacted The Antiterrorist And Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). Much of the language in the act was not about terrorism, but about vigorously limiting the writ of habeas corpus appeals. Unfortunately, many judges now may be so focused on protecting “The Holy Writ,” they may fail to spend as much time on the actual evidence of guilt and innocence that is laid out before them.
Consequently, most exonerations in cases like Richard’s stem from sudden discoveries of DNA evidence. Our friend’s justice may be harder to gain because all of the DNA in his case may have been used up in the more primitive tests used in the late 1980s.
Even so, the lawyers and investigators of Centurion Ministries have told Richard that they will never stop fighting for him until he walks out of prison a free man. The Centurions are known nationally as a legal team that only takes cases in which they firmly believe that their clients are without a doubt innocent. Consequently, many of us are working hard to be good friends of both Richard and the law team that fights for his life as a free man.
There is always room for more friends in this organization.