Criminal injustice: the Richard Lapointe case

Criminal injustice: the Richard Lapointe case

By David R. Cameron
Published: Monday, June 7, 2010 12:07 PM EDT
The most dramatic moment thus far in Richard Lapointe’s current habeas trial occurred when Karen Martin, his former wife, took the witness stand in the Rockville courtroom and listened to a recording of her interview on July 4, 1989, with former Manchester detective Michael Morrissey. Morrissey secretly recorded the two-hour interview.

Lapointe was convicted in 1992 for sexually assaulting and murdering his wife’s 88-year-old grandmother, Bernice Martin, in her apartment in the Mayfair Gardens elderly housing complex in Manchester in the early evening of March 8, 1987. He was sentenced to life without parole.

Lapointe was convicted largely on the basis of three statements he signed during the course of a 9½-hour interrogation the same day his wife was interviewed. Unlike the interview of his wife, his interrogation was not recorded, so whatever was said prior to the three statements is not known.

But based on the way Morrissey, one of the detectives who interrogated him, conducted the interview with Karen Martin, there can be little doubt Lapointe was misled about the evidence against him and pressured into agreeing that he did what those interrogating him said he did.

Morrissey acknowledged that he misrepresented the evidence against Lapointe in his interview with Martin. He told her she might be charged with hindering prosecution and might lose custody of their son. He pressed her to agree that Lapointe took dinner to Bernice that evening. According to Martin, “He said everything, and then turned it around like I knew it.”

The trial occurred before the phenomenon of false confessions — in which individuals confess to crimes they didn’t commit — was widely recognized. False confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, and it is now known that certain disabilities contribute to false confessions.

Lapointe suffers from Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a rare congenital malformation of the brain that can result in mental and physical disabilities. There can be no doubt the three statements constitute a false confession; they contain evidence he was influenced by what the interrogators told him and made up much of what he told them.

In one statement, he said, “I was at Bernice’s apartment with the dog. We were both there together and the time was right. I probably made a pass at her and she said no. So I hit her and I strangled her. If the evidence shows I was there, and that I killed her, then I killed her but I don’t remember being there.”

In another, Lapointe said he and Bernice Martin had a cup of coffee, she was wearing a pink housecoat, he sexually assaulted her, then stabbed her while she was on the couch, then strangled her. No cups of coffee were found at the scene. No pink housecoat was found at the scene. She was sexually assaulted in a different manner than the way he described. She was stabbed on the bed not the couch. She died because of pressure from a blunt object on one side of her neck and smoke inhalation, not because she was strangled by someone’s hands.

At the trial, Lapointe said he signed the first two statements so he could go to the bathroom. He said he recanted when he came back. The interrogation went on past 1 a.m. He said he signed the third because, “I figured if I signed the statements, I could leave.”

The only other evidence implicating him was a semen stain on Martin’s bedspread from someone with Type A blood who was a secretor, meaning the antigen in his blood is secreted into other body fluids, and whose semen contained no sperm. He has Type A blood, is a secretor, and had a vasectomy.

But 40 percent of the population has Type A blood, 80 to 85 percent are secretors, a large number of men have had vasectomies, and there are a number of reasons other than a vasectomy why there may be no sperm in semen. At the trial, the lead forensic scientist in the case said she “very often” was unable to find any sperm in a semen sample. Also, of course, the stain could have occurred some time prior to March 8, 1987.

Former Manchester police Capt. Joseph Brooks, who was in charge of the investigation, was quoted in a recent op-ed by Donald Connery, one of the country’s leading experts on false confessions, as saying, “Richard’s conviction has always troubled me. The whole thing made no sense. In the last few years I have studied the old files and every case document I could find. My inescapable conclusion is that Richard Lapointe had nothing to do with the murder of Bernice Martin.”

The current habeas trial is not about Lapointe’s guilt or innocence. It’s about his claim that his lawyer in his 2000 habeas trial provided ineffective assistance by failing to raise several issues, including the suppression of evidence pertaining to the likely time the fire was set that would have supported his alibi and the ineffective assistance of his lawyers at the original trial.

The trial will resume for three days in early July. Perhaps, if Superior Court Judge John J. Nazzaro vacates his conviction and orders a new trial, this injustice will be corrected.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale University.  He has written about wrongful convictions and cold cases in Connecticut.

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