Trying to strike up a simple conversation with Richard Lapointe can be difficult. The 70-year-old has Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a congenital brain disease that gives him an intellectual and physical handicap. It messes with his balance, his hearing, and makes him super gullible. I met him about three times before he recognized me.
Yet this is the same man who prosecutors say raped, stabbed to death, tied up, and set fire to a Connecticut woman in 1987.
Lapointe was freed on bond in April after spending almost 26 years in prison for a crime he was never tied to by forensic evidence. And even though prosecutors last month decided not to try and re-convict him after the Connecticut Supreme Court said he deserved a new trial, they still seem to think he's guilty and refuse to admit they were wrong, a testament to a glaring lack of accountability exacted on prosecutors across America.
Since 1989, only 1,700 inmates have been exonerated in the US, and cases like this one raise the question of what, exactly, prosecutors should do when they get a case so wrong for so long.
Lapointe now lives in a group home, barely able to walk on his own power. Until he was swallowed up by the criminal justice system, he worked bagging groceries or washing dishes in the town of Manchester, near Hartford. He had a wife, who was also disabled and a son. Since his imprisonment, he has been estranged from both.
On March 8, 1987, his then-wife's grandmother, 88-year-old Bernice Martin, was found dead inside her apartment in town. She had been stabbed 11 times, but an autopsy suggested she died as a result of strangulation and smoke inhalation. The murder went unsolved for two years, until detectives made Lapointe their suspect and arrested him in July, 1989. He went on to face a jury trial in 1992, was convicted, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Since then, his case has attracted attention from local journalists, concerned citizens, and activists who make it their business to fight wrongful convictions. These advocates pointed out that the state's case against Lapointe was based on three bogus confessions he signed during an almost ten-hour long marathon interrogation session in which Lapointe was nudged by detectives into admitting his "guilt." The interviews were not recorded and he had no lawyer with him. Detectives told Lapointe things that weren't true, like that they had evidence linking him to the murder. They falsely said his wife told them he did it, and that maybe he had a blackout, according to his supporters.
"It is a kind of brainwashing," said Steven Drizin, a clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law. "For most suspects, especially suspects who are naive and trusting, like Richard Lapointe, they don't understand that police officers are allowed to lie. And when they are told there is evidence against them that links them to a crime, it sends them into a crisis."
At the end of the interrogation Lapointe signed a statement that said, "If the evidence shows that I was there, and that I killed her, then I killed her, but I don't remember it."
Lapointe went to prison because the jury at his murder trial bought the manufactured confession. His advocates fought and fought for him while a succession of prosecutors made sure he stayed behind bars. But this past spring, the state Supreme Court upheld an appellate court ruling that Lapointe deserved a new trial. The court ruled that a detective's note detailing the burn time of the fire that would have supported Lapointe's alibi, was withheld by prosecutors at his original trial. That sort of evidence is known as "Brady material," information that could point to a defendant's guilt or innocence. Lapointe said he was at home watching television when the incident went down, and the note referred to the account of two fire marshals whose assessment of the blaze seemed consistent with that.
On October 2, prosecutors announced that they were dismissing the rape and murder charges, but stopped short of calling it an exoneration. Due to what the state said was the sheer passage of time, contaminated evidence, and a lack of living witnesses, it would not be able to prove that Lapointe was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Despite my decision to nolle the charges today [lawyerese for "not prosecute"], it is the state's belief that the defendant is responsible for the assault and killing of Bernice Martin. The evidence submitted to a jury led to such a result, the conviction was based on sound evidence, and subsequent appellate court decisions do not change the state's view of the evidence," Hartford Prosecutor David Zagaya said in court, adding that "this is no way an exoneration by the state."
Lapointe's name has been entered into the National Registry of Exonerations, a database of people in America who have been wrongfully convicted and subsequently cleared. Yet prosecutors maintain they conducted a fair and just investigation.
"There never was or has been any allegation that the police investigation or the prosecution of the defendant involved misconduct on anyone's part," Zagaya said in court. But if withholding a piece of evidence at trial, or coercive interrogation techniques isn't misconduct, then what is? "I think it's blatant misconduct, and they're getting away with it," said Don Connery, an independent journalist who writes about wrongful convictions.
If Lapointe is innocent, who killed Martin? At this point it seems likely that we'll never know; the case is officially closed, though Connery maintains that it should be open since the real perp was never found. (The Hartford State's Attorney's office did not respond to a request for comment.)
The theories are out there, including that the man responsible is a man named Frederick Merrill, who was dubbed the "Peanut Butter bandit" after escaping from prison in Connecticut because his mother sent him a jar of peanut butter with a gun inside. Witnesses say he was seen at an area bar the weekend of the Martin murder. Someone also reported seeing a man matching his description fleeing from Martin's apartment the night it was set fire. Three days later, Merrill was arrested after a brutal killing a few miles away that bore an eerie resemblance to Martin's. Again, an older woman was raped, stabbed, and tied up. Merrill was never questioned by local police because he escaped and fled to Canada, where he committed another sexual assault, and escaped from jail in Toronto by sliding down a drainpipe. Eventually, he served a 12-year prison term there and is currently in Connecticut state prison.
Entering the world again as an ex-con is always strange, but Lapointe's condition adds an extra layer of difficulty. In the time I've spent with him I've seen his mind get blown over and over again. I watched him take his first selfie after leaving court. Every time he saw my iPhone, he asked if he could have it. He was in awe at the small size of cars, and shocked at the news that his favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, won three World Series while he was locked up.
But even as he began to taste freedom, Laponte remained paranoid at the specter of the criminal justice system swooping him up at any moment and hustling him away to prison again. Before each court date, I watched him ask if he was going back in. Supporters told me he even tried to jump from moving cars on his way to appointments. After dinner, he was always quick to clean up, a job he was responsible for in prison. It's safe to say Lapointe is still a prisoner in his mind.
Lapointe's life is still not back on track—all he wants, he told me, is a regular job where he can go back to working with his hands. His supporters aren't satisfied with the outcome, even though Lapointe has been freed and even though he might get a payday from Connecticut if he sues over his conviction. And the worst thing, his advocates say, is that no one was held accountable.
"The state of Connecticut has won," Connery told me. "They have managed to put an innocent man in prison for over a quarter century and paid no consequences."
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