Every Saturday morning at 7, Robert Perske gets in his car and begins a trek from his Darien home to the MacDougall Correctional Institution in Suffield where Richard Lapointe -- convicted of raping and murdering his wife's 88-year-old grandmother in 1987 -- waits for his faithful friend. One such Saturday morning, an hour or so after the two had visited, Perske smiles like he's talking about his son as he relays stories of "Richie" playing on the prison's softball team. He shares insight into Lapointe's popularity at a prison where -- Perske says, moving from a proud grin to a serious, determined face -- most believe he is innocent.
Says Perske of Lapointe, who is serving a life sentence: "He's just a little, likable guy. I dream about him ... that he's out. It's a terrible miscarriage of justice." Perske says Lapointe, who has a congenital brain malformation, trusted the police who worked three different confessions from him during a 9 1/2-hour interrogation, confessions that carry statements like, "If the evidence shows that I was there, and that I killed her, then I killed her. But I don't remember being there."
When Perske was growing up in Denver, there was a man who lived in the neighborhood named Jake Palmer, maybe 35 or 40 years old, who was "really strange," but the kids loved him. He would sometimes come to Perske's aid in times of neighborhood trouble. The kids were told by adults that Jake had been "gassed in World War I." It wasn't until Perske was grown himself, and had returned from service in World War II, that he understood that Jake Palmer had been born with developmental disabilities. When Perske came home from the war, Jake's elderly parents had died, and Jake had been sent off to an institution.
So began Robert Perske's calling into the world of helping others. He was a worker in the mental health field many years, moving into pastoral work and then becoming an author who specializes in writing about people with mental disabilities. Some of his works focus on how they are treated in the criminal justice system, including one titled "Unequal Justice."
Perske is among a well-organized, passionate group of people, The Friends of Richard Lapointe, whose members are unified in their belief that the Manchester man is a victim in the Bernice Martin murder; that he confessed to a crime he could not have committed. Perske says the group is made up of "angels" who plan to battle until they win -- despite a recent loss in their court appeal.
Perske got an anonymous call from someone familiar with his years of work, and the person pointed out that there was an important case in his own backyard. The day Perske headed to the courthouse where Richard Lapointe's life was on the line, he carried a notebook with him, intending to start recording facts and information for his work as a writer. He decided that day he would not be writing about Lapointe, though.
Almost immediately, he lost his objectivity in the case, he says. "He had nobody. It just grabbed me. Everybody had pulled away from him and he had been pretty much in cold storage for three years before the trial."
"He trusted [the police]," Perske says of Lapointe and his time being interrogated for the slaying, which happened in Manchester. The interrogation took place two years after Martin's death. "He thought he was helping them to solve the case."
After the recent failed bid for a new trial, a disappointed Lapointe said to Perske, "All my life, I've tried to be a nice guy and I get whacked around like this," Perske said.
Marge Cunningham, who runs a court reporting business in Hartford, is one member of the group supporting Lapointe. She said Perske is "a Christian who decided at some point he would rather work with `my people,' meaning people with disabilities, than minister a congregation, and every bit of money that he and his wife make, they pour back into helping people in need."
Perske, who at 72 says he "fights being a geezer," says not everyone understands the way he has devoted his life to "the Richard Lapointes of the world."
"I've been called a bleeding heart," he said. "But damn it, I've seen enough things that make my heart bleed."