Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Update: Hartford Courant Columnist Says it's Time Richard LaPointe Gets a New Trial

Readers of this blog might recall an earlier post about Richard LaPointe, a man with hydrocephalus and associated neurological issues, who is currently in prison after being convicted in the murder and rape of his wife's grandmother. There are lots of serious doubts about the case - including the "confession" that LaPointe gave (his third after two attempts to get the details in that the police wanted).

I received an update today from Bob Perske, who has been fighting along with others to get Richard LaPointe a new day in court. You can read more about Bob Perske in the link above - his advocacy for Richard LaPointe is just one chapter of a long career of dedicated advocacy for the rights of people with developmental disabilities.

The news from Bob is that Richard has a new hearing in May. Rick Green, a columnist at the Hartford Courant, writes that maybe - just maybe - this hearing will result in what LaPointe deserves: A new trial:
One of the nation's most notorious examples of alleged wrongful conviction will soon return to center stage, perhaps finally providing an answer to a disturbing question.

Could convicted killer Richard LaPointe really have raped and murdered Bernice Martin?

Perhaps LaPointe's last shot at freedom will come in a Rockville courtroom this May, when a judge will consider evidence that his supporters say proves he deserves a new trial.

The May hearing could lead to freedom for the mentally disabled man who was found guilty in 1992 of the rape and murder in Manchester of Martin, his wife's 88-year-old grandmother.

The result will say plenty about justice in Connecticut. There has been no willingness by authorities to re-examine the questionable circumstances surrounding LaPointe's conviction.

The questions begin with the blind acceptance of a confession from a man with an I.Q. of 80 and extend to the exclusion of critical evidence and the incompetence of LaPointe's previous lawyers.

The evidence against LaPointe, now 64, in the 1987 crime is impressive — three confessions and a failure by his supporters to prove, despite repeated attempts, LaPointe's innocence.

But now, because of a state Appellate Court ruling last year, which overturned a lower court's ruling dismissing LaPointe's bid for a new trial, a Superior Court judge will review whether critical exculpatory evidence — an expert's analysis of the "burn time" of the fire that was set by the killer to cover up the murder — was not disclosed by the state.

"The state suppressed evidence. [LaPointe's] lawyers were ineffective. They didn't make use of the evidence that shows he didn't commit the crime," said Paul Casteliero, a lawyer for LaPointe. "The jury should have been aware of that."

"It is mind-boggling to me. The state never fixes a time when this whole thing happened."

Casteliero says that the evidence, in the form of notes from an arson investigator, doesn't fit the state's scenario for the murder on the evening of March 7, 1987. He said the notes suggest that the fire that Martin's killer set after the murder had burned too long for LaPointe to have quickly assaulted and murdered Martin and then calmly returned to his nearby home for an evening of television watching.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane declined to comment about the case because it is a pending matter.

The state Appellate Court, in a ruling last year that represents the first victory for LaPointe in the decades-old case, noted that if the fire had been burning for 30 to 40 minutes — instead of a much shorter period — then a potential, if thin, alibi emerges:

"There was sufficient evidence presented ... to establish the potential exculpatory nature of a burn time estimation because evidence was submitted that, if credited, tenuously would have established an alibi for the window of time created by this burn time estimation."

The state's unwillingness to reconsider is no surprise, said Kate Germond, an investigator and associate director of Centurion Ministries, which works to reverse wrongful convictions.

"They hang on pretty tenaciously to these cases. I think they are used to having their own way. Their impulse is to circle the wagons."

"This case in particular really gnaws at us," said Germond, whose group is actively involved in about 20 cases throughout the country. "Richard is getting older. His life expectancy isn't as long as you and I might enjoy."

A new trial for LaPointe is long overdue.

Because if LaPointe didn't do it, this is more than a case of the system taking advantage of a hapless disabled man.

The real killer may have gotten away with murder.
That last sentence is the part that people seem to miss when they get angry over wrongful conviction cases. Two miscarriages of justice - the innocent is jailed and the guilty stays free.

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