Elder Murder Conviction Thrown Out by CT Court

     (CN) – Finding it “near certain” that withheld evidence would have helped a mentally impaired man accused of raping and murdering his 88-year-old grandmother-in-law, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
     Richard Lapointe was convicted of murder in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison.
     The crime he was charged with involved the 1987 rape and murder of an 88-year-old woman, and the arson that attempted to destroy the victim’s apartment and the evidence inside.
     One of the most brutal cases in Connecticut history, according to the ruling, the case went unsolved until police focused their suspicions on Lapointe, the mentally impaired, then-42-year-old husband of the victim’s granddaughter.
     Lapointe has cerebral palsy, is slightly paralyzed and has an IQ of 92. He completed eighth grade at age 18, and is severely visually impaired, as well as unsteady on his feet. He had no prior criminal record and seemed mentally incapable of committing such a brutal crime.
     Nevertheless, Lapointe confessed to the murder after police interrogated him for nine hours. He told the police that he did not remember killing the victim, but was confessing because they wanted him to and because he needed to use the bathroom.
     After his conviction, Lapointe’s first habeas counsel failed to pursue the claim that the state improperly withheld a note authored by Detective Michael Ludlow concerning the length of time that the fire burned inside the victim’s apartment before it was discovered.
     Lapointe argued that the note could have cleared him of the crime, because his wife could testify that he was home with her and their son at the time the fire was started. His wife did not testify at trial because she divorced him after he confessed.
     A habeas court dismissed the claim, because regardless of the note, Lapointe could not account for his time for the entire window of time within which the victim was murdered. For 20 minutes during this period, Lapointe took the family dog out for a walk and had no witness to his whereabouts.
     But an appeals court reversed, and the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed in an opinion that the court posted to its website Monday.
     “The testimony of the petitioner’s experts was more than sufficient to call into question the reliability of the petitioner’s conviction,” Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the court. “Indeed, even if that expert testimony only tended to support the petitioner’s claim that he could not have murdered the victim, in view of the tenuous nature of the state’s case against the petitioner – based as it was on his suspect admissions – the state’s Brady violation would warrant a new trial because, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized, exculpatory evidence of even ‘minor importance’ may well be ‘sufficient to create a reasonable doubt” when, as in the present case, ‘the [guilty] verdict is already of questionable validity.'”
     There is no dispute that the state’s case against Lapointe rested almost entirely on his confession as there was physical evidence connecting him to the crime. DNA testing did not exist at that time, and a lab test was only able to determine that the killer had type A blood. One-third of the male population has type A blood, including Lapointe.
     The court also noted that little was known about false confessions at the time of Lapointe’s conviction.
     “One cannot evaluate the strength of the state’s evidence against the petitioner in the present case incognizant of the fact that our awareness of the phenomenon of false confessions has increased vastly in the nearly twenty-five years since the petitioner’s conviction” Palmer said. “One also cannot read the petitioner’s statements to the police, particularly in light of the testimony of the officers who elicited them, and not be left with serious concerns about their reliability.”
     While the interrogation was not taped, Lapointe’s statements do not seem to reflect an accurate account of the victim’s murder, the 61-page opinion states.
     Rather, the confession reads more “like the statement of a man who, having just been told by someone he trusts that there is incontrovertible proof that he sexually assaulted and murdered his wife’s grandmother, is trying to understand how he could have no memory of such a horrific event,” Palmer wrote.
     If the jury had heard evidence regarding the timeframe for the fire, and heard the wife’s testimony that Lapointe was at home watching television with her when the fire was set, “there is not just a reasonable probability of a different result, there is a near certainty of one,” the court concluded.

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