Man with mental disability to receive new murder trial 20 years later

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As part of a police investigation into the 1987 murder and rape of Richard Lapointe’s wife’s 88-year-old grandmother, law enforcement officers brought Lapointe into a small interrogation room for questioning in the then-two-year-old case.

Law book gavel and justice scale

Criminal Injustice?

The room contained charts, which said things along the lines of “fingerprints,” “DNA,” and “pubic hair.” For the next nine and a half hours the police interrogated Lapointe, a dishwasher in Manchester, Conn. whose Dandy-Walker syndrome severely impacts his memory, as well as his learning and thinking capabilities.

Like most police interrogations at the time, the video was untaped. Eventually, Lapointe confessed. In one of the three confessions he signed, he said, “If the evidence shows I was there, and that I killed her…then I killed her, but I don’t remember being there,” as reported by the New York Times.

On October 1, 20 years after a jury convicted Lapointe of all the charges on nothing more than the confession, the Connecticut’s state Appellate Court ordered a new trial.

The court’s determined Lapointe did not receive a fair trial because the state had suppressed a fire marshal’s report that is potentially consistent with Lapointe’s alibi that he was in a separate place from the grandmother’s residence at the time of her murder, rape and the subsequent destruction of most of the evidence from the arsoning of her home.

The court also ruled that one of Lapointe’s lawyers had been ineffective in one of his appeals by failing to raise the issue of the fire marshal’s report, according to the N.Y. Times article.

Back in 1992, most criminologists believed that no innocent could confess to such horrendous crimes. But subsequent research into false confessions, especially with people with mental disabilities, has pushed back at this perception.

In the approximately 300 cases where the Innocence Project has used DNA evidence to exonerate previously convicted defendants, about a quarter of the defendants gave self-incriminating statements, pleaded guilty or just confessed, according to an NPR feature.

Though DNA evidence has not played a role in Lapointe’s case, the police tactics in the case, which are completely legal, have been heavily analyzed.

“It’s one of the iconic cases in the annals of false confessions,” said Steve Drizin, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and a law professor at Northwestern University Law School, told NPR.

As documented in an extensive 2004 NPR feature on one of Lapointe’s lawyers and most ardent supporters, Bob Pepske, Lapointe had a considerable group of followers at his trial whom believed he was innocent.

They formed a group, called Friends of Richard Lapointe, which used to meet at Burger Kings and has done countless outreach events bringing attention to Lapointe’s case. They describe him as a quiet man, neither capable mentally or physically of doing such a horrific act.

Upon hearing that Lapointe would receive a new trials, his long-time supporters were startled and overjoyed.

“Oh, my…I didn’t dare hope,”said Rosemarie Hargrave, a supporter from the start, told the Hartford Courant.