If it’s true, to paraphrase the writer Linda Blandford, that justice is a concept but muscle is the reality, then the sad saga of Richard Lapointe is a textbook case. For it was Lapointe who ran up against the steely spine of a Connecticut law enforcement establishment that not only wronged him, but to this day has refused to admit its error in the face of a mountain of evidence.
Yet finally after 23 years of imprisonment, we have encouraging news. In a stunning 3-0 decision, a state Appellate Court this week ordered a new trial for the mentally disabled dishwasher who has been serving a life sentence for a murder conviction based on little more than a gossamer confession.
Lapointe, who by most accounts wasn’t even strong enough to hurt a fly, was convicted in 1992 of the brutal rape and murder in Manchester of his then-wife’s 88-year-old grandmother. He is accused of subsequently setting fire to her home to cover up the crime.
This week the court declined to rule on Lapointe’s guilt or innocence, but concluded “that there is a reasonable probability that the result of his criminal trial would have been different” if notes taken by a Manchester police officer had been turned over to Lapointe’s attorneys before the original trial.
Those notes were taken by a Manchester police detective based on an interview with state fire marshals who estimated the fire had been burning for 30 to 40 minutes before firefighters arrived. If true, that timeframe would have supported Lapointe’s alibi that he was home watching television.
Why did law enforcement authorities fail to turn over the exculpatory evidence? We can only guess, but when the trial commenced five years after the murder, police and prosecutors had already invested a great deal of time and effort trying to solve the crime and charge the suspect. If the notes had been turned over to the defense team, all that work might have gone down the drain and law enforcement officials would have looked either duplicitous or incompetent.
So why be fair? Why come down on the side of justice when reputations are at stake? It’s that kind of arrogance and callous disregard for a man’s freedom that damages the reputation of law enforcement even more than if a not-guilty verdict had been returned. Admit you’re wrong and get on with it.
Author and wrongful conviction expert Don Connery of Kent shares my sentiment. “They should admit they were wrong all these years but they never do that,” Connery said in an interview. “They could save themselves the embarrassment.”
Connery, who has called the Lapointe case “worst wrongful conviction case in Connecticut history,” added that the case against Lapointe is so weak that the state should decline to try him again.
“It would mean this man would continue to languish in prison, so it would be indecent to take him to trial,” he said. Furthermore, he added, “It would be reprehensible if they appealed this 3-0 appellate court decision.”
The Lapointe saga brings to mind another violent Connecticut murder featuring a wrongfully accused suspect convicted through a coerced confession. After Peter Reilly, then 18, discovered his mother struggling for life on the floor of their Falls Village home in 1973, 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 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 that 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.
Lapointe was not so lucky. The tapes were not rolling the night of July 4, 1989, when he was invited to Manchester police headquarters and grilled for nine and a half hours without an attorney. That the mentally challenged Lapointe signed a confession near the end of that exhausting session should come as no surprise. Police interrogations are very effective at extracting mea culpas from the weary and the vulnerable. The Reilly tapes proved that.
To make matters worse, there was no forensic evidence linking Lapointe to the crime. And take a guess at what the Manchester police did after Lapointe’s confession — they let him go and arrested him the next day, which leads us to wonder how dangerous they really thought he was.
Thankfully, last year the General Assembly passed — and Gov. Dannel Malloy signed — legislation requiring that police record all interrogations of suspects in their custody. But for Connery and others who pushed for the bill, its passage came way too late to help a poor man who continues to suffer at the mighty hand of the law.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com, and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.