For Friends Of Richard Lapointe, Finally, A Break

'I Didn't Dare Hope' Says One Supporter After 20 Years Of Disappointment

Two decades ago, a handful of supporters watched a jury convict Richard Lapointe, a mentally handicapped man they said was run over by the wheels of justice.

Over the years, this small group grew and came to be known as the Friends of Richard Lapointe, supporters bound by a near-religious belief that a disabled, clumsy dishwasher from Manchester was incapable of the brutal murder of his wife's grandmother, despite his conviction.

News that state Appellate Court judges had ordered a new trial for Lapointe struck like a divine bolt of lightning Monday morning,

"We reverse … and order a new trial," wrote Appellate Court Judge Bethany J. Alvord, in words never to be forgotten by the now elderly Friends of Richard Lapointe. Citing the suppression of critical evidence — notes from an arson investigator that could support Lapointe's alibi — the court said Lapointe deserves a new trial.

Even for those who believe, it was a nearly unbelievable turn of events after so many years of rejection in court after court.

"Oh, my," said Rosemarie Hargrave, a supporter from the start. "I didn't dare hope."

"I'm speechless,'' said Robert Perske, an author from Darien, considered the original friend of Lapointe.

"It's hard to get your hopes up,'' said Pat Beeman, an advocate for the disabled.

It takes a lot of hoping and believing to survive 20 years of rejection and failure. The Friends are now old and gray. Some have passed on. They spent years meeting in a Wethersfield Burger King and endless hours licking envelopes for fundraising drives, making phone calls and writing letters in support of Lapointe's early appeals. More recently, they would gather like old schoolmates, crowding uncomfortably into courtrooms to bear witness to a string of losing court appeals.

Throughout, volunteers would visit Lapointe twice a month, to read aloud to him, talk about the Red Sox, or try to answer his questions about a family that left him after his conviction.

One thing never wavered: the Friends of Richard Lapointe believed.

"We've learned that the long haul is the important haul,'' George Ducharme, a stalwart Lapointe supporter, told me. The Friends "are people with resilience and the ability to pick ourselves up. We've learned this from people with disabilities, by the way. We continue to stand together because we have a complete and utter conviction that this man could not possibly have done this crime."

"The thing that we see — the unfortunate thing — is that we see a game here. You play with technicalities and you don't see the human being. You don't see the person,'' Ducharme said. "The prosecutors played their part of the game well. Once you get that conviction, it is very hard to overturn."

This was a case that turned on disturbing (and recanted) confessions from a mentally disabled man who was duped into thinking he was the prime suspect. Evidence that might have helped Lapointe was never properly presented. Throughout his trial and appeals, Lapointe remained oddly detached and often appeared unaware of his circumstances.

Lapointe's ultimate fate is still uncertain. The state may appeal the Appellate Court decision or choose to retry him. But Monday's ruling seemed to lend support to a long-standing argument by Lapointe's lawyers and supporters: that it was absurd to think that a small, awkward man with intellectual and physical disabilities could have committed a complicated, violent and messy murder in a matter of minutes.

"I think once you get involved and see something terribly wrong you feel a little bit like a dog with a bone. How do you let it go?" said Hargrave, of Simsbury, who still visits Lapointe regularly. "There would be days I would think, 'How could anyone not rule in Richard's behavior.' And then it doesn't happen.

"You are so focused on how do you begin to unravel this awful story. In the meantime, there is this human being who lost everything that was ever important to him. He was what this was all about."

Beeman was been there since she attended Lapointe's first trial in 1992. "I couldn't believe that people were not able to see what I saw," she said Monday when I asked about what she learned through the years of trials and appeals.

"I stayed with it for so long because it was totally an injustice. Now there is a little sense of something being restored,'' she said. "Somehow you kept yourself going knowing that this man is not guilty."

In coming days, Lapointe's lawyers will seek his immediate release on bail after 23 years in jail.

His friends promise they will be there to help him.

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