Richard Lapointe Trial: 1992
Richard Lapointe Trial: 1992
Defendant: Richard Lapointe
Crimes Charged: Murder, arson, assault, sexual assault, kidnapping
Chief Defense Lawyers: Patrick Culligan, Christopher Cosgrove
Chief Prosecutors: Rosita Creamer, Dennis O'Connor
Judge: David M. Barry
Place: Hartford, Connecticut
Date of Trial: May 6—
July 6, 1992
Sentence: Life imprisonment plus 60 years
SIGNIFICANCE: While the trial itself provoked little attention, Lapointe's conviction became the center of a growing international controversy over the rights of mentally impaired defendants.
On March 11, 1987, 88-year-old Bernice Martin was raped, bound, and brutally murdered in a senior citizens' housing complex in Manchester, Connecticut. Martin's killer set her apartment on fire, presumably to destroy evidence. Police were frustrated by a lack of leads in the case for two years. They eventually focused their investigation on Richard Lapointe, the husband of Martin's granddaughter. Lapointe, a mentally impaired dishwasher, lived nearby and had reported the fire.
A Disputed Confession
On July 4, 1989, Manchester police asked Lapointe to come to their station to be interviewed about the murder. Before he arrived, they arranged a room with fake evidence bearing his name and implicating him in the case. Police read Lapointe his Miranda rights and accused him of the murder when he arrived, but did not arrest him. They falsely told him that his fingerprints and DNA matched that of the killer, when in fact no such evidence existed. They similarly lied that his wife had been told that he committed the murder and she wanted him to confess. After an interrogation lasting nine and one-half hours, police allowed Lapointe to leave. The following day, however, they arrested him at work and publicly announced that he had signed a confession the previous day. Preliminary hearings on August 23 and 25 convinced Hartford Superior Court Judge Harry Hammer that sufficient evidence existed to try Lapointe for Martin's murder.
Unable to post a $500,000 bond or afford an attorney, Lapointe remained imprisoned for two and a half years before his case finally came to Hartford Superior Court on December 16, 1991. His court-appointed attorneys, Patrick Culligan and Christopher Cosgrove, immediately tried to suppress Lapointe's confession, which they argued was coerced. On March 6, 1992, Judge David M. Barry ruled that the confession was admissible.
Lapointe's trial began on May 6. He denied that he had killed Martin and said that the Manchester detectives had supplied the details in three signed confessions. "I figured if I signed the statements, I could leave," he said, explaining that he had signed the first two documents so that he would be allowed to use the bathroom, then recanted when he emerged.
The prosecution offered circumstantial evidence that semen lacking sperm was found at the scene, matching Lapointe's blood type and possibly coinciding with his having had a vasectomy. Yet the prosecution relied almost exclusively on Lapointe's confession. Prosecutors and police witnesses insisted that only the killer could have known certain details in the confession, including a correct description of the knife used to stab Martin, the location of her wounds, and what parts of her sofa had been set afire. They also pointed out that Lapointe told a friend the day after the murder that Martin had been raped. Police did not tell Martin's family about the sexual assault until months after her death. On the stand, Lapointe responded that he had overheard someone mention the rape at a hospital the night Martin was futilely transported for emergency treatment.
Attorneys on both sides sparred over the details in Lapointe's third and most damaging confession. Lapointe confessed to raping Martin with his penis, but medical analysis determined that she was raped with a blunt object. Lapointe confessed to strangling the victim with both hands, but an autopsy revealed that strangulation occurred when an object was pressed into the right side of her neck. Lapointe confessed to raping Martin in her bedroom, then stabbing her on the couch. Forensic investigation at the scene, however, established that Martin was stabbed on her bed. Testimony about the time frame when Lapointe was seen walking his dog in Martin's neighborhood was confusing and inconclusive.
On June 30, the jury found Lapointe guilty of capital felony murder and related charges. Prosecutors sought Lapointe's execution during the penalty phase of the trial, but medical testimony missing from the earlier portion of the trial cast doubt upon Lapointe's mental capacity. The jury decided against capital punishment. On September 6, Judge Barry sentenced Lapointe to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, plus 60 years.
The sentence satisfied state prosecutors, but it enraged many who had monitored the trial, including attorneys and advocates for persons with mental impairments. A group called "The Friends of Richard Lapointe" began publicizing the view that Lapointe's conviction was based on an invented confession by a brain-damaged man intimidated by threats and tricks. The Manchester police were widely criticized for not recording the sessions that elicited the controversial confessions.
Rights of Mentally Handicapped Raised in Appeal
When Lapointe's appeal was formally filed on February 27, 1995, attorneys John Williams and Norman Pattis sought not only a reversal of Lapointe's conviction, but a new law requiring police to record interrogations that produce confessions. The appeal questioned whether or not the due process clause of Connecticut state law required electronic taping of confessions and advisement of Miranda rights. Two further points directly questioned Lapointe's ability to understand his legal situation during his interrogation. Specifically, attorneys questioned whether the trial court had erred in concluding that Lapointe was not in custody during his second and third confessions and in ruling that Lapointe had "knowingly and intelligently" waived his right to counsel. As the appeal was weighed, the pitch of a public relations battle between Lapointe's defenders and the state justice system rose. International advocates for the mentally handicapped increasingly cited the Lapointe case as an example of a retarded defendant's rights being trampled. Connecticut critics of Lapointe's conviction called publicly for the resignation of chief state's attorney John M. Bailey over his refusal to reexamine the case. Area attorneys and newspaper editorials agreed that regardless of the truth about the Martin murder, Lapointe's trial had been unfair.
On July 5, 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court voted 5-2 to uphold Lapointe's conviction. The court rejected contentions that taped confessions were a constitutional right and that Lapointe's confession was obtained involuntarily. Lapointe's attorneys had argued that the hydrocephalic condition from which he suffered, Dandy Walker Syndrome, made him liable to confess to whatever he assumed authority figures wanted to hear. The court ruled that there was no evidence that the Manchester detectives had forced the confessions from Lapointe or restrained him against his will during the long interrogation.
The state court's decision was as controversial as Lapointe's conviction itself. Although his supporters continued to petition for his retrial or release, the 1996 decision forced them to argue increasingly finer legal points to make the case for his freedom.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Condon, Tom. "Reasonable Doubt." Northeast Magazine, Hartford Courant (February 21, 1993).
Jensen, Steve. "Man Guilty in Killing of Wife's Grandmother." Hartford Courant (July 1, 1992) Bl.
Kauffman, Matthew. "Supreme Court Upholds Lapointe Conviction." Hartford Courant (July 6, 1996): Al.