Richard Lapointe looked dazed, even confused, when he walked out of Superior Court in Hartford last week. It was the first time in 26 years his feet hit civilian pavement. He was supposed to die behind bars.
apointe’s long walk to freedom illustrates the complexity of the criminal justice system.
Bernice Martin was murdered in March 1987. She was raped, then stabbed, then suffocated, and her Manchester apartment set afire to hide the killer’s tracks. She was 88 years old at the time of her death. She lived a short walk from the home Lapointe and her granddaughter, Lapointe’s then wife, shared.
On July 4, 1989, Lapointe, then a suspect, was summoned to the Manchester Police Department. During a marathon interrogation, he appeared to confess. No lawyer sat beside him at the police station.Lapointe was convicted of capital felony murder in 1992. Although his offense made him eligible for the death penalty, the state elected not to try to kill him. (The state has since repealed the death penalty.) He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Here’s the nub of the case:
Martin was found in her still smoldering apartment. She had been raped, stabbed, and left to die in an arson believed set by her killer. Lapointe discovered the fire when he was sent to check on her after she did not answer calls from another relative.
Martin was last seen alive at 5:45 the night she was killed. Lapointe appeared at her door, and discovered the fire, sometime after 8 p.m., calling 911 from a neighbor’s apartment at 8:27 p.m.
Lapointe lived about a 10-minute walk from Martin’s apartment. He did not drive. His wife, Martin’s granddaughter, could provide an alibi for him for all but about 45 minutes during the period from which Martin was last seen alive until she was discovered in her burning apartment. Could Lapointe have killed her and started the fire during those 45 minutes? A jury certainly thought so, based on the evidence it heard.
Although Lapointe was not a suspect at the time Martin’s body was discovered, Manchester police eventually concluded he was the killer. On July 4, 1989, late in the afternoon, they called Lapointe to the police department for a chat. They told him they had incontrovertible proof he was the killer. (They did not have such proof.) They got Lapointe to say that he did not recall killing her, but if the evidence showed he did, then he must have done so.
I studied these confessions — there were three of them — in the mid-1990s. John Williams and I appealed Lapointe’s conviction to the state Supreme Court. Lapointe, who suffers from a congenital brain abnormality called Dandy Walker’s Syndrome, was a sitting duck for conviction-happy cops. They lied to him, they bullied him, they got him to confess to a crime he said he did not recall committing.
We had hoped the Supreme Court would regard this case as proof that police must be required to record interrogations. The Supreme Court disagreed. Lapointe’s conviction withstood direct appeal.
A direct appeal consists of a review of all the words spoken at trial, together with an examination of the exhibits offered, exhibits admitted into evidence and rulings on motions. It is what lawyer’s call “record driven.” On appeal, lawyers can’t rely on facts not part of the trial record; new facts are outside the four corners of the record.
To introduce new facts, you must launch what is called a collateral attack on the conviction. This is typically done by way of what is called a habeas corpus proceeding. This involves a new trial before a judge, and not a jury. The petitioner’s hope is to persuade the judge that he is being held illegally because he had been deprived of some fundamental right.
In Lapointe’s case, new lawyers found evidence that the state had failed to disclose to the defense at trial a detective’s note suggesting that the fire had been set so late in the evening as to rule out Lapointe as the killer. In other words, Lapointe had a possible alibi for his whereabouts at the time the killer set the fire, and therefore was not the killer.
The state has an obligation to turn over information tending to show a defendant is not guilty, what lawyers call exculpatory evidence. That’s because the state’s job is not simply to win cases, but to see that justice is done. At the habeas trial, however, Lapointe’s new lawyers walked away from this claim by failing to pursue it.
Another group of lawyers then filed a second habeas corpus petition. They alleged not just that the state failed to turn over exculpatory evidence, but that Lapointe had been deprived of his right to effective assistance of counsel, a form of legal malpractice, in the first habeas corpus trial when his lawyer inexplicably abandoned the claim about the alibi evidence.
Eyes roll in courthouses throughout the state when discussing second habeas corpus petitions. A habeus on a habeus is, to the say the least, a long shot. In Lapointe’s case, the trial judge at the second habeas trial rejected Lapointe’s claim.
In 2013, the Appellate Court reversed the second habeas judge, and ordered a new trial for Lapointe. The state appealed to the Supreme Court, which, last month, agreed that Lapointe should be given a new trial.
Lapointe was freed earlier this month on a bond while the state decides whether to try him again.
The Supreme Court’s opinion shocked lawyers throughout the state. It created new hitherto unseen and unheard of rules regarding how to evaluate the testimony of experts. Shockingly, the court did this without giving the parties, either Lapointe or the prosecutors, a chance to write briefs on the issue the court decided involving how to evaluate the testimony of conflicting arson investigators.
Twenty-six years after he was first taken into custody, Lapointe’s case still stirs unusual passions. The criminal courts invite that, each man fighting until his last breath for one last chance at freedom. Sometimes, but rarely, the condemned man wins. I suspect Lapointe looked stunned as he left the courthouse because the odds of his succeeding were so improbable; it’s been a dizzying journey.