New Trial For LaPointe Would Show Innocence
For Wrongly Convicted LaPointe, A Last Chance For Justice
New Trial For LaPointe Would Show Innocence


May 2, 2010

Monday in Rockville’s Superior Court, Richard Lapointe will have his last chance to show the world that Connecticut’s lawmen made a tragic mistake two decades ago.

Charged in 1989 for the murder of his wife’s 88-year-old grandmother two years earlier, and convicted in 1992, the hard-working family man lost everything: his freedom, his livelihood, his marriage and all contact with his only child. Now, finally, at a habeas hearing seeking a new trial, he aims to prove his innocence.

Lapointe, 64, is incapable of being much more than an uncomprehending observer of the proceedings. Even the Manchester police who long ago gained his three muddled confessions during a nine-hour interrogation (“I killed her … but I don’t remember being there”) knew all along that he was mentally disabled.

Having endured five operations for Dandy-Walker Syndrome, “water on the brain,” his intelligence may be limited, but I expect he will enjoy being reunited, if only at a distance across the courtroom, with The Friends of Richard Lapointe. This citizens group has fought for his freedom with astonishing persistence despite endless setbacks.

Such attention to a case that might have lapsed into obscurity was bolstered by The Courant’s law-trained reporter, Tom Condon, when he investigated the murder of Bernice Martin for an article published on Feb. 21, 1993. His conclusion: Lapointe is almost surely innocent.

Years later, when neither publicity nor appeals to the state’s highest courts won the day, Lapointe’s seemingly hopeless case was taken on by the Princeton-based Centurion Ministries. The organization, funded by public donations and using crack investigators, has freed a parade of imprisoned innocents over a quarter-century. Centurion attorneys will present the required new evidence of Lapointe’s innocence at the Rockville hearing.

Hopes for Lapointe’s freedom were buoyed in early April when two other men, George Gould and Ronald Taylor, were released after nearly 17 years behind bars for a New Haven homicide they did not commit. Their exonerations were the fourth and fifth in Connecticut in five years. A ruling vacating Richard Lapointe’s conviction would make him the state’s sixth exonerated prisoner in a short time span. If freeing the innocent is to be established as an annual event in this state, isn’t it time to ask: Have we been doing something wrong?

We can count on our state’s attorneys to do everything in their power to keep Lapointe behind bars for life. Yet they and all other law enforcement people cannot possibly be unaware of the DNA revolution that has shaken our justice system.

That revolution, coinciding with Lapointe’s nearly 21 years in jail, has done far more than free some 250 innocents (the tip of the iceberg) while identifying, in many instances, the true criminals. It opened our eyes to the magnitude of wrongful convictions, numbering in the tens of thousands annually, and to the reasons why they occur: faulty eyewitness testimony, junk science, unreliable jailhouse snitches, bad lawyers, lying cops, overzealous prosecutors and, of course, false confessions.

In light of all the new knowledge, does it never occur to our state’s attorneys to go back to square one in cases like Lapointe’s, be appalled by the absence of evidence of guilt, and move vigorously to correct an injustice, however embarrassing it may be?

They ought to take their cue from the forthrightness of retired Manchester police captain Joseph Brooks. His detectives lured Lapointe to headquarters on false pretenses on July 4, 1989, and got him to agree that he must be guilty. Brooks believed then, as did virtually everyone else in the law, that no one confesses to a crime he didn’t commit unless deranged or physically tortured.

Even so, Brooks questioned the quality of the confessions and the absence of confirming evidence. Instead of arresting Lapointe that night, he let him go home. He would proceed only on an arrest warrant signed by a prosecutor and a judge. They did not share his misgivings, or order an expanded investigation, so Lapointe’s fate was sealed.

“Richard’s conviction has always troubled me,” Brooks told me recently. “I knew him around town as a simple, harmless dishwasher. 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.”

•Donald S. Connery of Kent has written about the criminal justice system for nearly 30 years, focusing largely on false and coerced confessions, is on the advisory boards of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School and the National Center for Reason and Justice, based in Boston.

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