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Richard Lapointe

Other Connecticut Cases
On March 8, 1987, 41-year-old Richard Lapointe, his wife, Karen, and their son spent 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. visiting Karen’s 88-year-old grandmother, Bernice Martin, at her apartment in Manchester, Connecticut.

They then walked home—a 10 to 15 minute walk. At about 5:45 p.m., Bernice’s daughter, Nathalie Howard, saw her mother putting out the garbage as she and her husband drove by Bernice’s housing complex on their way home. Nathalie was the last known person to see Bernice alive.

At 7:55 p.m. and again at a little after 8:00 p.m. that same evening, Nathalie Howard telephoned Bernice as was her nightly custom and became concerned when there was no answer. She then telephoned Richard and Karen Lapointe and Richard offered to walk over and check on Bernice.

At 8:27 p.m., Richard Lapointe called 911 to report a fire in Bernice’s apartment. Firefighters arrived and ultimately dragged Bernice out of smoke-filled apartment. She had been stabbed 11 times; strips of fabric were knotted tightly around her neck, her wrists and abdomen. An autopsy showed she died of asphyxiation, though she was not manually strangled, and that she was sexually assaulted. Seminal fluid found on a bedspread was determined to be from a person with Type A blood.

The murder remained unsolved for more than two years. In March 1989, the case was re-assigned to Manchester police detective Paul Lombardo who reviewed the file and almost immediately focused on Richard Lapointe as his chief suspect.

On July 4, 1989, police asked Lapointe to come in for questioning. At the same time, Detective Michael Morrissey went to Lapointe’s home and interviewed Lapointe’s wife, Karen. During the interview with Karen, which was tape recorded, she was repeatedly threatened with the loss of her son and with imprisonment if she was found to be lying. Nevertheless, she steadfastly maintained that after they returned from the afternoon visit, Richard did not leave the home, except for a brief time around 5 p.m. when he walked the dog before dinner. She said he did not leave the house again until Nathalie called and asked Richard to check on Bernice.

At the same time that Karen was being questioned, Detective Lombardo was interrogating Richard Lapointe. At one point Richard said, “If you say I was there, I guess I was, but I don't remember being there.” Morrissey returned to the station and took over the interrogation of Lapointe.

Lapointe later said that Morrissey told him he was going to lock up his wife, that his son would be taken from them and that Karen had implicated him. Ultimately, after a total of nine hours of interrogation Morrissey persuaded Richard to sign a statement implicating himself in the murder.

However, many of the supposed facts in the statement were contradicted by the forensic evidence and other important facts were not mentioned.

For example, based on the blood evidence, the victim was stabbed in her bed, yet Lapointe’s statement said he stabbed her while she was sitting on the living room couch. Although the clothing the victim was seen wearing by her daughter at 5:45 p.m. was found strewn around the victim’s bed with the buttons from the victim's blouse on the floor indicating the blouse had been torn off, Lapointe said in his statement that she was wearing a night gown (which was never found). Following the questioning by Morrissey, Lapointe was allowed to go home.

The next day, however, Lapointe was arrested and charged with caital murder, arson, assault, sexual assault and kidnapping. Police said he confessed to the crime during the interrogation.

Lapointe’s lawyers challenged the confession on the grounds that it was coerced from the mentally-challenged Lapointe and that it was false based on the fact that Lapointe suffered from Dandy Walker syndrome, a congenital brain malformation which left him with only a partially-formed cerebellum and therefore physically unable to commit the crime. The prosecution dispute that Lapointe was mentally challenged, noting that Lapointe had an IQ of 91 and the detectives said they went so far as to put a telephone on the table in the interrogation room so that he could call an attorney if he wanted, but he declined to do so and continued talking to them. The confession was allowed to stand.

In June 1992, Lapointe went to trial in Superior Court in Hartford, Connecticut. The detectives testified that Lapointe confessed, recanted and then confessed again. The prosecution alleged Lapointe knew details only the killer would know and therefore the confession was true based on a telephone call Lapointe had with a neighbor a day after the crime during which he said that “it was a shame they killed an old lady, but they didn't have to rape her, too.”

At the trial, medical personnel testified, that they did not check the victim for sexual assault trauma when she was at the hospital that night and that it was only the next day that it was determined she had been sexually assaulted. The defense, however, produced a volunteer fireman who was at the hospital when the victim was brought in and he testified the nurses advised that the victim was sexually assaulted.

A crime laboratory analyst testified that a stain on the victim's bedspread was human semen from a person who was a secretor with Type A blood. Lapointe has Type A blood and is a secretor. The semen stain also was found to contain no sperm, which was consistent with the semen of a person who has had a vasectomy—as Lapointe had had years earlier.

On June 30, 1992, the jury convicted Lapointe of all the charges and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The case drew the attention of the media as well as that of Kate Germond, a Connecticut native who worked for (and later would become executive director of) Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit organization that investigates wrongful convictions across the country. She became involved with a group of Lapointe supporters who called themselves “Friends of Richard Lapointe” and who helped Lapointe obtain lawyers for his trial, his appeal and later, his first state petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

At the same time, the media began raising serious questions about whether Lapointe was guilty, beginning with a lengthy investigation published in 1993 by the Hartford Courant newspaper and followed up by reports by Connecticut Public Television and the CBS television program “60 Minutes.”

The convictions and sentence were upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court in the summer of 1996. Thereafter, Lapointe’s supporters asked attorney Henry Vogt to examine the case and Vogt filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

When a hearing began on the petition, Germond became concerned that Vogt, who had not handled a criminal case in the past, was doing an inadequate job because he was not presenting any evidence that the prosecution had concealed exculpatory information, or that Lapointe’s trial attorneys had provided an inadequate defense. At her request, attorneys Paul Casteleiro and James Cousins reviewed the records in the case to determine if anything should be done.

In the process, while examining a box of evidence given to Vogt by the prosecution, Casteleiro discovered a critical document that would eventually unravel the case—nearly two decades later.

Casteleiro found a report by Manchester Detective Michael Ludlow that contained notes of an interview with a fire investigator who said that the fire at the victim’s home had been burning 30 to 40 minutes before it was discovered. That meant that the fire started when Lapointe was still at home.

Despite the discovery of this exculpatory evidence, the court would not allow Casteleiro and Cousins to amend the habeas petition to raise claims based on the newly discovered suppression of exculpatory evidence claim or other claims not already raised by Vogt.

Vogt’s habeas petition was denied. Casteleiro and Cousin then filed a second petition for a writ of habeas corpus alleging that prior habeas counsel was ineffective in failing to argue for relief based the prosecution’s suppression of the evidence of the fire’s burn time.

The trial court dismissed the second habeas petition. In 2009, however, the Connecticut Appellate Court reversed the dismissal and sent the case back to the trial court for a new hearing.

Eighteen witnesses testified at a nine-day hearing on the petition, including Ludlow and Stephen Igoe, the prosecution’s fire expert, as well as arson experts who testified for Lapointe. In addition to the testimony regarding the arson and Ludlow’s notes of his interview with Igoe, Lapointe’s lawyers presented evidence showing that DNA tests failed to find Lapointe’s DNA on any of the evidence in the case, including a pubic hair found on the victim’s sweater.

In April 2011, the trial court again denied the petition. The court ruled that the DNA analysis was unreliable because the evidence had been handled over the years by witnesses and others, and that the Ludlow notes regarding the time the fire began would not have led the jury to acquit Lapointe.

In October 2012, the Connecticut Appellate Court reversed that decision and ordered a new trial on the ground that the Ludlow notes were crucial to Lapointe’s defense. The court agreed that if the defense had about known of the suppressed note on the burn time, it would have hired an arson expert and presented evidence to establish that it was impossible for Lapointe to have set the fire since he was home when the fire was set, as Lapointe’s lawyers did at the second habeas hearing.

The prosecution appealed, and in late March 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court decision granting Lapointe a new trial. On April 10, 2015, Lapointe was released on bond after spending 26 years behind bars.On October 2, 2015, the charges were dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/10/2015
State:Connecticut
County:Tolland
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape, Assault, Arson, Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1992
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:41
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*