Richard Lapointe, Convicted In 1987 Murder In Manchester, Gets Another Day In Court

Richard Lapointe gently shook my hand, asked for my press I.D. and made a joke.

"Strong like bull," he said with a wink when I asked how he's feeling. "Smell like bull, too."

This was the benign jokester his friends told me about. But I had come to the maximum-security McDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield looking for the man convicted of raping and murdering his wife's 88-year-old grandmother on a Sunday evening in 1987.

What I found was a small shuffling man with short arms, a large head and oversize glasses. He wears a hearing aid in each ear. Lapointe, 64, has an intellectual disability called Dandy-Walker syndrome, a congenital brain malformation. Lapointe is eager to please and quick with the self-deprecating humor.

We quickly got down to the crime and the infamous three signed confessions he made to police during a long night of questioning two years after the murder.

"I didn't do it," Lapointe responded. "They were asking me questions and I was answering their questions. They made a trick question. Why would I confess to something I didn't do?"

On Monday, a Superior Court judge in Rockville — in response to a ruling in Lapointe's favor from the state Appellate Court — will take yet another look at this endlessly appealed saga of what is either a wrongful conviction or a very crafty mentally disabled murderer. The latest hearing on whether Lapointe deserves a new trial represents a dramatic, perhaps final, showdown in a case that has long attracted national attention.

Lapointe's lawyers say critical exculpatory evidence, including notes from an arson investigator that suggest the crime took much longer than police said, was suppressed during Lapointe's 1992 trial.

Lapointe, with an I.Q. of about 80, was polite and talkative, without bitterness. There was only sadness and jokes when we talked.

"I was a dishwasher. I did the lowest job in the building," he explained. "I loved my job. I loved my wife. I loved my son."

The long days in prison are spent doing simple word puzzles, playing cards and watching TV, though he told me he has no particular show he likes. He doesn't have a prison job.

On March 8, 1987, Bernice Martin was stabbed once in the stomach and 10 times in the back. She was sexually assaulted, bound up and dragged about her small apartment, which was set on fire after the attack. She died of a combination of strangulation and smoke inhalation. The fire destroyed nearly all DNA material from the crime scene.

Two years later, during a nine-hour interrogation, Lapointe gave three different and conflicting confessions to police. Lapointe, who doesn't read well, signed all of them. There is no audio or video recording of the interrogation.

"I loved her like my grandmother. I used to visit her with my wife. I'd run to the store with her," Lapointe said about Martin.

His wife has long since divorced him. He has no contact with his son. The Friends of Richard Lapointe, a band of now elderly supporters, visit him weekly.

"Without them, I'd be dead," he said. "Without seeing people from the outside, I wouldn't know what's going on. They all believe and know I didn't do anything."

The Friends, who number a few dozen, have never given up because they've never understood how a man with limited mental capacity and physical ability could suddenly and violently murder an old woman, all during a break from Sunday night TV watching. They have stood by Lapointe through a series of lawyers and 18 years of mostly bad news.

But a year ago, the state Appellate Court breathed new life into Lapointe's claim that he didn't strangle, stab and sexually assault an old woman. The court ruled that evidence viewed in "the light most favorable" to Lapointe supports his alibi, "albeit tenuously."

For years, Lapointe's supporters have excoriated Manchester police and the state's attorney's office for relying on the three confessions to convict Lapointe. For example, Lapointe confessed to strangling Martin with his hands. A medical examiner testified that she was asphyxiated by pressure from a blunt object.

There are other questions. Gloves found at the crime scene didn't belong to Lapointe. Although Lapointe confessed to stabbing Martin on the couch, forensic evidence suggested that the stabbing occurred in Martin's bedroom. He said Martin was wearing a "pink house coat." No clothing similar to that was found at the scene. DNA from a pubic hair found on Martin's clothing doesn't match Lapointe's.

I asked Lapointe about the police investigators and the long night of questioning that led to the three confessions that sunk him. Lapointe defended the police.

"What's wrong with that? They were doing their job," he said. "I'm not mad at them. It's their job."

But later he told me, "They just kept talking to me. I couldn't say I want to go home. I just kept talking to them. There was nothing wrong. I don't remember saying that I did it. Why should I say that? I'm not stupid. ..."

"I miss working. I miss talking to people. I miss my wife, my ex-wife. I miss my son," he said. "I have no regrets for being here. That's not my problem. That's the state's problem. They just said I did it. I've been trying to prove I didn't do it."

My hour visit ended and I departed with more questions about how this frail, disabled man got here. Lapointe, a man who has lost everything, was serene.

"Why should I be angry?" he asked before I left. "I've never been angry in my life."

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