One of the state's most controversial murder convictions will stand, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Eight years to the day after Richard Lapointe was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of raping and killing his wife's 88-year-old grandmother, Judge Samuel Freed in Hartford Superior Court rejected the Manchester man's bid for a new trial through a civil petition.
The judge dismissed the petition, filed in 1997 in Hartford Superior Court, in which Lapointe's lawyer argued that new evidence proved he could not have committed the crimes. He also argued that prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective legal representation rendered the conviction flawed.
After hearing testimony earlier this year from 23 witnesses, Freed found that Lapointe's lawyer failed to present new scientific evidence showing his client's brain malformation rendered him unable to commit and conceal the crime. "We certainly are pleased that the court decided in our favor," said Assistant State's Attorney JoAnne Sulik. "At this point, we need to review the decision before saying anything more."
Lapointe, now 54, learned of the ruling Wednesday evening from a friend, Robert Perske, an author from Darien. "He took it hard," said Perske, who reached Lapointe by telephone at MacDougall Correctional Institution in Suffield. "He really thought he would get out."
Lapointe, a former dishwasher whose case was once featured on the television show "60 Minutes," exhausted his criminal appeals long ago. The state Supreme Court upheld his conviction in July 1996, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review it later that year.
But on Wednesday, Lapointe's supporters pledged a renewed effort to win his freedom. They criticized Lapointe's lawyer, and said they will appeal Freed's decision. Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit organization that has freed 20 people wrongfully sentenced to death row or life in prison, is bankrolling a new defense team and has committed itself to the case.
"We believe there's an innocent man in prison," said Kate Germond, an investigator from the New Jersey-based organization. "We're sticking with Richard Lapointe until he walks out of jail, however long it takes."
A jury in 1992 deliberated for less than two hours before finding Lapointe guilty of raping and murdering Bernice Martin in 1987, and then setting her Manchester apartment on fire to conceal the crime. Among the evidence was a semen stain found at Martin's apartment. Tests showed that it contained no sperm, and had come from a person with Type A blood, both of which pointed to Lapointe, who has Type A blood and had had a vasectomy.
But central to the conviction were three statements Lapointe gave to investigators during a 9 1/2-hour interrogation on July 4, 1989. The session ended with what police said was a confession, and what the defense contended was a coerced statement extracted from Lapointe without a defense lawyer present, or a recorder to document it.
The defense contended that police took advantage of Lapointe's vulnerabilities as a small, awkward, mentally handicapped man. Lapointe has a rare congenital brain malformation called Dandy Walker Syndrome, and is missing part of his brain.
In the first statement he signed that night, Lapointe says he was responsible for the killing, that it was an accident and that his mind went blank. In the next, he says if the evidence shows that he was there, and that he killed Martin, "then I killed her, but I don't remember being there." Police then pushed for and got a more detailed statement, in which Lapointe says he sexually assaulted Martin, then stabbed her and strangled her.
During the civil proceeding, Simsbury attorney Henry "Ted" Vogt argued that scientific advances in the study of Lapointe's brain malformation show that he lacked the physical and intellectual ability to carry out and conceal the crime.
Although Vogt called medical experts at the hearing, Freed found that he failed to directly ask the experts whether Lapointe had the capacity to commit the crimes. Lapointe's supporters, who split with Vogt early in the hearing, said the failure to ask that critical question underscored what they say was poor representation by Vogt.
Vogt, who has never before represented a petitioner in such a proceeding, said he stood by his performance, and was disappointed by the ruling.
"I think it's wrong," Vogt said. "I think I made a very strong record of why Mr. Lapointe deserved a new trial, and hopefully through the appellate process he will ultimately receive that trial."