If Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly aren’t able to solve the state’s mounting fiscal problems over the next few months of the legislative session, then perhaps they’d be willing to face down a problem of seemingly minor importance to most of us.
After all, how many among us have been arrested on suspicion of committing a serious offense, subjected to a lengthy police interrogation, and forced to confess to a crime we did not commit?
But the issue of wrongful convictions obtained through forced confessions during police interviews is of great concern to the innocent victims whose lives have consequently been destroyed or severely disrupted.
And Connecticut is ground-zero for coerced mea culpas resulting in dubious convictions. So it comes as no surprise that a bill was introduced in the General Assembly earlier this year that would require law enforcement authorities to record interrogations of suspects under investigation for capital felonies or class A or B felonies.
Two prominent Connecticut cases involving forced confessions show strikingly different results. Out here in the Northwest Corner, most locals are thankful that the State Police had the tape rolling in 1973 when they subjected Falls Village teenager Peter Reilly to an extensive psychological interrogation that lasted almost 24 hours.
After Reilly, then 18, discovered his mother struggling for life on the floor of their Falls Village home, state police viewed him as the only suspect in the murder almost immediately. The subsequent rush to judgment resulted in a shameful saga of forced confession, shoddy police procedure and prosecutorial excess. Few events in state history have done more to harm the reputation of the Connecticut State Police and the Litchfield County state’s attorney’s office.
Thankfully, however, the state police recorded Reilly’s confession and most of his interrogations, revealing interviewing techniques that bordered on brainwashing. The tapes, which clearly showed the “confession” of the hungry and sleep-deprived teenager was signed under duress and false pretenses, played a major role in Reilly’s eventual exoneration after a jury had found him guilty of manslaughter.
Richard Lapointe, however, was not so fortunate. The mentally challenged dishwasher confessed in 1987 to the murder and rape of his wife’s grandmother in Manchester after nine hours of unrecorded interrogation. Despite scant evidence tying him to the crime, Lapointe was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in what Kent resident Donald Connery has called “Connecticut’s foremost ‘wrong-man’ case.”
Connery, an author and longtime advocate for the wrongfully convicted, wrote a book in 1977 on the Reilly case, Guilty Until Proven Innocent, that was released in paperback last year. Connery has also been very active in the Lapointe case — and many others — through his role as an adviser to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago.
Connery, who has testified on this subject before the General Assembly’s judiciary committee almost every year since 1996, isn’t optimistic about the bill’s passage this year.
“This has actually been going on for the last three years, under the banner of Kevin Kane’s chief state’s attorney’s office, but it is largely window dressing or baby steps to delay any widespread adoption of the reform in Connecticut,” Connery wrote in an email to me.
“Most police, and not just in Connecticut, are dead set against having the public know what goes on in interrogation rooms. What goes on may not be the third-degree brutality widely accepted in America until late in the 20th century but it is nasty and ugly as suspects, the innocent as well as the guilty, are routinely subjected to psychological torture over many hours.”
At a hearing before the judiciary committee on Wednesday, Kane, who said he supports the recording of interrogations, nonetheless declined to advocate for passage of the bill because it would be an unfunded mandate on municipalities. Others bemoaned the possibility that a simple oversight or equipment failure might result in the unjust acquittal of a guilty party.
On the one hand, as the state’s fiscal crisis demands that law enforcement authorities tighten their belts like the rest of us, it seems like a bad time to suggest spending money on a new program. But as Connery told me, past experience in the 16 states that now require recording suggests that millions of dollars could be saved in subsequent litigation costs from the wrongfully convicted. Or if “righteous confessions” are caught on tape, then the need for a trial could be obviated.
It would give me great pleasure to see this bill pass and become law. But far more importantly, it would remove the sickening spectacle of a man like Richard Lapointe, whose innocence is widely assumed, from the gross injustice of remaining in prison.
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.