Richard LaPointe is one very lucky man. It might strike you as odd to say that of a fellow serving what amounts to a life term for the rape and arson-murder of his wife’s 88-year-old grandmother. But, 20 years after a jury found him guilty as charged, he’s won the right to a new trial. That is because a group of concerned citizens never stopped believing in his innocence.
When Bernice Martin was found dead in her apartment in 1987, suspicion quickly turned to LaPointe. He lived nearby. He had visited the victim earlier the day she was murdered. He was seen in the vicinity at or about the time of death. When he was summoned to the local police department for a nine-hour interrogation and left having confessed, albeit in conclusory terms, the case seemed air-tight.
I was one of the lawyers who took his appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court. We challenged the circumstances under which he had “confessed.” The man suffers Dandy Walker’s Syndrome, a cognitive disability arising from too much water on the brain. Leave him alone long enough with the police, and you might just get some fresh leads on Jimmy Hoffa’s whereabouts, although I doubt you’ll find Hoffa.
But we did not raise as an issue on appeal whether the evidence was sufficient to convict Richard LaPointe. That’s because I thought it was.
Claims of evidentiary insufficiency are not often successful on appeal. You must persuade an appellate court that all of the evidence in the case, taken in the light most favorable to the state, could not lead any rational juror to vote in favor of guilt. On the record assembled at trial, it is possible that LaPointe was the killer. He had access to the victim; he had opportunity. As to motive, well, the rape and murder of an 88-year-old woman most likely had something to do with rage. A family member might harbor such sentiments.
After the Supreme Courts of both Connecticut and the United States closed the books on the LaPointe trial, his supporters, a die-hard group of journalists and court professionals wanted to meet to consider the next steps. They were persuaded he was actually innocent of the crime. I had read the trial transcript. I couldn’t tell. The record I had mastered for appellate purposes told me the evidence was sufficient to convict. When I uttered those sentiments, my involvement with the case ended.
New lawyers appeared to fight for LaPointe in what is called post-conviction relief claims, what lawyers call habeas corpus proceedings. At its core, a habeas petition contends that a person is held illegally and demands his release. Unlike an appeal, which is confined to a review of the transcript and trial exhibits in light of the law existing at the time of trial, a habeas petition can range broadly. Claims that the trial lawyer erred are common. Sometimes claims are made that the state hid evidence that could not have been discovered at trial. A habeas corpus petition permits a defendant to put on a new trial, although this time before a judge. A new record is assembled.
LaPointe’s first habeas trial failed. The trial court concluded he received a fair trial. He took an appeal of that ruling, and lost. But his supporters dug in. They retained a new lawyer, this time turning to a lawyer from New Jersey, Paul Casteleiro. At a second habeas trial, LaPointe’s lawyers argued that the state had withheld evidence that the fire at the victim’s home was only recently started when police officer’s came to the victim’s home. If that evidence is true, LaPointe could not have started it. He was at home, with an alibi, at the time the fire was set. The trial court rejected that claim.
Last week, the Appellate Court ruled that the state was wrong not to give that evidence to LaPointe’s defense lawyers at his first trial, and that his first set of habeas lawyers erred in not making more of this. A new trial has been ordered for LaPointe.
Significantly, the Appellate Court did not rule that LaPointe is actually innocent, a somewhat puzzling decision given the presence of hair follicles with unknown DNA at the crime scene. The Appellate Court ruled only that had the evidence regarding the time the fire was believed to have been started been turned over to the defense, there is a likelihood the trial strategy of the defense, and the outcome of trial, would have been different. It is quite possible that LaPointe would have been acquitted.
Before LaPointe’s case goes to trial again, the state’s Supreme Court will first review the Appellate Court decision. Powerful institutional currents stand in the way of a new trial for LaPointe, not the least of which is a sense among the judiciary that the state’s liberal habeas corpus procedures need reform. In Connecticut, prisoners have virtually unlimited access to the courts, each claiming they are innocent, their lawyers erred, they should be release. Cynics roll their eyes at these claims, and a weary court system might prefer limits, as there are in the federal system, to how and when a prisoner can seek post-conviction relief. Not long ago, the State Supreme Court reversed a lower court that set free two men accused of murder. State prosecutors then brought criminal charges against an investigator who worked on behalf of the prisoners. (I represent the investigator in those criminal charges.)
It is deeply troubling that a quarter century after the murder of Bernice Martin, a court has only now concluded that the state withheld important evidence tending to show that the accused was innocent of the crime charged. LaPointe deserves a new trial. The Supreme Court ought not to engage in the noxious form of justice that too often yields quick forgiveness of the prosecution’s acts and omissions as harmless error.
Richard LaPointe’s supporters never wavered in their commitment to the man. Now that commitment has yielded a rare victory. It is quite possible that in this case, the habeas corpus system worked. A new trial is no guarantee of an acquittal, but, if the newly discovered evidence casts doubt, reasonable doubt, on whether LaPointe is guilty, he ought to be set free.