Last week’s Supreme Court decision to grant a new trial to Richard Lapointe was a promising development, but it should in no way be viewed as the end game.
Lapointe, you may recall, was the mentally-challenged diminutive dishwasher convicted in 1992 of the brutal rape and murder five years earlier of his then-wife’s 88-year-old grandmother. He was also accused of subsequently setting fire to her Manchester home to cover up the crime.
Now, after 26 years of unjustly imprisoning Lapointe, the state’s highest court had handed him and his legal team a victory of sorts. In a 4-2 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled Lapointe was denied access at trial to a report from fire marshals that might have proved that Lapointe was home watching television, as he said he was at the time of the murder. In doing so, the high court rejected an appeal by prosecutors to a 2012 appeals court decision to retry the case.
This is good news for anyone who believes in justice but if the state proceeds with a new trial, it be cold comfort for the now-69-year-old Lapointe, who will continue to languish in jail, though there were indications he might be released late this week pending the new trial.
It’s important to note that this is not only a case of wrongful conviction, but of forced confession. Despite what police falsely told Lapointe during his interrogation, there was no physical evidence tying him to the murder scene. The conviction is based almost entirely on three gossamer confessions extracted from a weak-minded man with Dandy Walker syndrome, a medical condition that causes abnormal brain and motor development, irregular coordination, poor memory, and a lack of abstract thinking.
I live an area of the state that is especially attuned to the woes of the wrongfully convicted. Denizens of Connecticut’s northwest corner are still smarting over the case of 18-year-old Peter Reilly, who 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, despite the complete absence of blood evidence.
Thankfully, however, police recorded Reilly’s “confession” and most of his interrogations, revealing interviewing techniques that bordered on brainwashing. To wit, Reilly was told repeatedly that the reason he could not remember killing his mother was that people who do bad things usually block them out of their minds. I’d be willing to bet the Manchester cops used the same technique on the vulnerable Lapointe.
The Reilly tapes, which clearly showed that the mea culpa of the hungry and sleep-deprived teenager was signed under duress and false pretenses, played a major role in the teen’s eventual exoneration after a jury had found him guilty of manslaughter.
But Lapointe was not so fortunate. 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.
Thankfully, in 2011 the General Assembly passed — and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed — legislation requiring that police record all interrogations of suspects in their custody. Now if we could only require them to wear body cameras. But one step at a time.
Speaking of small victories . . .
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence later put the kibosh on the legislation but only because big business spoke loudly in opposition. Malloy’s was an empty gesture — and a safe one at that. Does anyone seriously believe he would have issued such a travel ban if the UConn men were going to the Final Four in Indianapolis?
At this point in the second term of his governorship, Malloy seems to have punched out of his home state. He’d rather tell the Hoosier State what to do, fire rockets at the governors of New Jersey and Louisiana, and go on MSNBC to play out his role as a shrill attack dog for national Democrats. By any objective measure, Malloy is striking poses in an attempt to elevate his national profile.
He submitted a budget to the General Assembly two weeks late and out of balance. Malloy seems in denial about the deficits and, at this point in the process, has essentially punted the budget mess to the legislature.
I’d say the governor has his eyes on bigger prizes. To his credit, he has proposed a bold 30-year state transportation plan. He has also traveled to Washington to participate in a White House forum on alternative ways to fund transportation projects.
I’d say Malloy is setting himself up nicely to be secretary of transportation in a Hillary Clinton administration. Now if we could only find someone to look after Connecticut.
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