Richard Lapointe, convicted on dubious evidence in 1992 of one of the more shocking murders in recent Connecticut history, fought for more than two decades for his release from prison, with a small army of supporters backing him. In 2015 he and his advocates finally succeeded.
“I feel like a million dollars,” he told The Hartford Courant when the case was dropped. “Green and used, old and wrinkled.”
For Mr. Lapointe, a diminutive man of limited mental capacity because of a congenital brain malformation, the long struggle bought about five years of freedom. He died on Tuesday in East Hartford, Conn., at the nursing home where he had been living. He was 74.
George Ducharme, his conservator and a longtime member of Friends of Richard Lapointe, a group that had sought his exoneration, said the cause was unclear. Mr. Lapointe had dementia and other health problems and had recently been hospitalized for a week with the Covid-19 virus.
The crime was headline-making: An 88-year-old woman, Bernice Martin, was raped, stabbed and strangled in March 1987; her apartment in Manchester, Conn., east of Hartford, was set on fire to destroy the evidence.
More than two years later, with frustration over the failure to solve the crime growing, the Manchester police brought in Mr. Lapointe and grilled him for nine and a half hours. Ms. Martin was the grandmother of his wife at the time, Karen Martin.
Eventually the interrogators got Mr. Lapointe to sign three confessions they had written, though their legitimacy was open to debate. In 1992 he was convicted of murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison.
Among those who smelled a miscarriage of justice from the start was Tom Condon, a columnist for The Courant. Ten days after the conviction, he began his column this way:
“Richard Lapointe is short, chubby and owlishly homely. He wears a hearing aid and thick glasses. He is meek and deferential. He is not very bright.
“Watching him on the witness stand and examining the record, it is hard to believe that on one night in his 46 years, and one night only, he turned into a crazed psychopathic sex killer.
“It is so hard to believe, that maybe he didn’t.”
Others — the playwright Arthur Miller was one — felt the same and began pushing for a re-examination. At the instigation of Robert Perske, an advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Friends of Richard Lapointe was formed, and eventually Centurion Ministries, which fights wrongful convictions, became involved.
Yet still the years passed. At the time of Mr. Lapointe’s conviction, little was understood about the phenomenon of false confessions, in which innocent people might for a variety of reasons admit to a crime, especially under grueling interrogations in policy custody.
Little, too, was understood about Dandy-Walker syndrome, Mr. Lapointe’s condition, which his supporters said left him easily persuaded and eager to please and would have made him susceptible to manipulation by the police.
“The Richard Lapointe case was a top-to-bottom failure of the Connecticut criminal justice system, compounded by some bad luck,” Mr. Condon, who covered the case extensively for The Courant and now writes for The Connecticut Mirror, said by email. “He never should have been arrested, he never should have been convicted, and he certainly never should have spent 26 years in prison while the state circled the wagons and tried to protect a bad conviction.” (Mr. Lapointe spent three years in prison before his conviction.)
Paul Casteleiro, one of the lawyers who took up the case, said Mr. Lapointe’s innocence was obvious to anyone who juxtaposed the crime and the man.
“The confessions were kind of a joke,” he said in a telephone interview. “Anybody who knew him, you understood that this was an impossibility. He didn’t have the physical ability, he didn’t have the coordination. It was preposterous.”
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Lapointe was married to Karen Martin, who had cerebral palsy, and they had a son, Sean.
“They actually had a life and were making it,” Mr. Casteleiro said, “and these cops just destroyed them.”
Richard Lapointe was born on Oct. 18, 1945, to Rosaire and Mildred Lapointe and grew up in Hartford. His physical appearance and thick glasses earned him the nickname Mr. Magoo. His Dandy-Walker syndrome was diagnosed when he was 15.
He was working as a dishwasher when he was arrested. Mr. Perske, who died in 2016, received an anonymous tip about a possible miscarriage of justice, went to a court hearing and found Mr. Lapointe essentially facing his ordeal alone.
“He called all of us and told us to get ourselves up to the courtroom,” Mr. Ducharme said, “because a travesty was happening there.”
It was not until 2015 that the Connecticut Supreme Court intervened, examining an argument that exonerating evidence had not reached the defense. Its ruling reversing the conviction did not mince words.
“The petitioner was forty-two years old when he allegedly committed one of the most brutal crimes in our state’s history — the rape, torture and murder of a defenseless eighty-eight year old woman, a person who, by all accounts, was like a grandmother to him,” the majority opinion read. “Although there is abundant evidence in the record concerning the petitioner’s simplemindedness, his peculiarities and his very rigid way of thinking, one searches the record in vain for evidence that he ever was physically violent, that he suffered from a mood disorder, psychosis, drug addiction or anything else that could explain why, after visiting the victim every Sunday for years, he suddenly went back to her apartment on the Sunday in question and brutally murdered her, without his wife noticing either that he had left their house or any change in his demeanor or appearance upon his return.”
Soon after, the state decided not to retry the case.
Mr. Lapointe is survived by his son and four siblings, Rosaire, Debra, Patrick and Elise Lapointe.
Mr. Ducharme said that after his release Mr. Lapointe enjoyed attending Centurion events celebrating the exonerated.
“There,” he said, “we learned that Richard was an incredible dancer.”
Mr. Casteleiro said that victories in cases like Mr. Lapointe’s were bittersweet.
“They say it must be a great feeling when you walk the guy out,” he said. “And I say: ‘It really isn’t. This guy’s been in for 20-some years. What’s to celebrate?’”
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