THE JOURNAL INQUIRER
Gullibility Connects a Con Man to a Wrong Man
By Donald S. Connery
Published: January 21, 2009
What possible link could there be between Bernard Madoff and Richard Lapointe?
Madoff, of course, is the super-swindler who suckered investors out of (by his own count) fifty billion dollars. Lapointe is the mentally and physically impaired man imprisoned since 1989 for a Manchester murder he did not commit.
The answer lies in the just-published book, Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It. The author, Stephen Greenspan, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado. He taught for many years at the University of Connecticut. I wrote the Foreword.
Greenspan’s first words: “This book is dedicated to Richard Lapointe, an innocent man whose gullibility in believing lies told by his interrogators landed him in prison for life and started me on my journey to try and understand the phenomenon of gullibility. Like all Richard’s many friends, I pray that I will live long enough to see this nonviolent but too-trusting man regain his freedom.”
I first met Steve in the early 1990s. The two of us were caught up in a citizens’ struggle to save the good husband, father and hard-working dishwasher who supposedly raped and killed his wife’s grandmother, 88-year-old Bernice Martin, before setting fire to her home.
No physical evidence, plausible motive or common sense linked Lapointe to the murder. His conviction rests almost entirely on “admissions” that conflict with the realities of the crime scene. The Manchester detectives, during a nine-hour, unrecorded, high-pressure interrogation, led him to utter such nonsense as, “I killed her but I don’t remember being there.”
“The Friends of Richard Lapointe” were greatly energized by newspaper investigations making plain the predicament of a childlike, defenseless man who was done in by his susceptibility to persuasion and his desire to please and placate authority figures. The Hartford Courant’s Tom Condon made a powerful argument for Lapointe’s innocence. A series of reports by the Journal Inquirer’s Alex Wood exposed the police lies and deceptions that led to Lapointe’s arrest and conviction.
The case became nationally known when Mike Wallace and his “60 Minutes” crew covered the activities of The Friends and their all-day “Convicting the Innocent” public forum in Hartford in 1995. Steve Greenspan was a featured speaker at this first-ever major event devoted to false-confession issues. So was Arthur Miller, whose great play, “The Crucible,” is all about forcing blameless people to confess.
Yet nothing worked. Not with the publication of the book, “Convicting the Innocent,” focusing on the Lapointe tragedy. Not when the case reached the state supreme court. Not in the following years of pro bono legal initiatives by Centurion Ministries of Princeton, New Jersey, a team of investigators with a stunning record of freeing forty-three innocents from the nation’s prisons.
Connecticut prosecutors have successfully blocked their every effort on Lapointe’s behalf.
Okay, you say, but what’s the connection to the con man? Simply this: In a profound irony, Bernie Madoff’s mendacity might just prove to be the key to hastening Lapointe’s freedom.
Yes, this may be a stretch, but hear me out. Greenspan’s book on gullibility, though fascinating, is more of a scholarly work than a thriller for a mass audience. Not expected to attract great media attention, it was published in December at the very moment the Madoff scandal burst into the headlines.
Suddenly, nationwide, everyone wanted to know: Why did so many smart people allow themselves to fall victim to a snake-oil salesman?
One of those smart people was Greenspan himself. Despite being the foremost expert on gullibility, he had put too much trust in a financial adviser who had put too much trust in Madoff. As he told a CNBC interviewer, his $400,000 investment has vanished.
But Steve knows how to make lemonade out of a lemon. With his name and his book gaining greater notice with every revelation of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, he wrote a proposal for a book about how and why he and other Madoff victims had been so thoroughly duped. He pounded out articles on gullibility for Skeptic magazine and The Wall Street Journal, now widely available and discussed on the Internet. He has become a magnet for television and radio interviewers.
In all this commotion, which could go on for months, it seems to me just possible that some people of conscience and influence–even in Connecticut–will take notice of the passages in Annals of Gullibility that tell the Richard Lapointe story under the heading, “False Confessions of People with Brain Damage.”
They provide the most compelling current account of the most shameful—and continuing—miscarriage of justice in Connecticut history. As he did Jan. 9 on National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” (http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast.php?id=510221), Professor Greenspan is seizing every opportunity to make it known.
Is it too much to hope that attention will be paid by Governor Rell, top legislators, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and other major figures in the law? If so, will they be discomforted enough by what our “Constitution State” has done to this harmless little man to do something about it?
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