Courtroom Surprises: Twists And Turns In Connecticut Trials

Hartford Courant reporters have witnessed many of the most controversial trials in Connecticut over the last 250 years.

Nearly a century ago, it might have become the trial of the century.

A Bridgeport priest was shot dead on a busy city street. Multiple witnesses placed a dim-witted vagrant at the scene. Ballistics experts linked the man's gun to the crime. A chilling confession cited an "irresistible impulse to kill someone."

So the crowded courtroom was rapt on May 27, 1924, when Fairfield County State's Attorney Homer S. Cummings recounted the compelling facts gathered by investigators — and then, point by point, meticulously refuted every piece of police evidence, shredding his own case and declaring the defendant innocent.

It was a shocking end to what The Courant called "one of the most remarkable criminal cases in the history of Connecticut." But it would hardly be the last startling courtroom finale in the state.

The criminal courts have always served as something of a stage where the tragedy of the human condition plays out. And occasionally those morality tales serve up a dramatic and controversial twist, with verdicts — both acquittals and convictions — that astonish the public and reverberate long after the final gavel comes down.

Take the case of Richard Lapointe, who this July will mark 25 years in prison since his arrest in the rape and murder of his wife's grandmother. His conviction in 1992, based in part on what some consider a questionable confession, stunned advocates for the mentally challenged and spawned a determined coalition of supporters seeking to free him. Decades later, his case is still on the docket — with the state Supreme Court set to decide his fate. In some ways, the practices of police and prosecutors a quarter-century ago remain on trial as well.

Courant reporters have been on the benches for many of those controversial trials over the last 250 years. Here are the details of a half-dozen such cases, whose outcomes caused surprise, alarm or simply enduring debate.

The Amistad Slaves, 1839-1840

After being kidnapped in 1839 from what is now Sierra Leone, Joseph Cinque and 52 other Africans were sold in Cuba and put aboard a sleek black schooner named The Amistad — Spanish for friendship.

A few days out to sea, Cinque led a revolt in which two crew members were killed. But the Africans spared the lives of two others and ordered them to steer the ship back east to Africa. During the day, the crew sailed toward the morning sun, but at night, they secretly turned the craft around, hoping to be rescued in the Americas.

After months of zigzagging off the east coast of the United States, they were spotted by a U.S. Navy ship and towed to New London. The crew members told their tale, and the Africans were charged with murder and piracy and sent to a prison in New Haven.

The odds were low that a group of blacks who spoke no English would find much sympathy in a Connecticut court in 1839 — nine years before the state would formally outlaw slavery. And the odds were lower still when the Africans were brought before Judge Andrew Judson, who six years earlier had prosecuted Prudence Crandall for running a school for black girls in Canterbury.

"The colored people can never rise from their menial condition in our country; they ought not to be permitted to rise here," Judson had said. "They are an inferior race of beings."

If that weren't enough, the Africans had a powerful foe in President Martin Van Buren, who was eager to placate the Spanish government, which had demanded that the Amistad and its cargo be returned to Cuba.

But the Africans had friends as well, and their case became a cause celebre for spirited abolitionists of the time, who financed the defense.

Judson had sent the criminal case to another court, where a judge ruled that since the killings occurred in international waters and the victims were not U.S. citizens, the court had no jurisdiction. But the question of whether the Africans were property or kidnap victims returned to Judson's court.

The White House prepared for victory, placing a ship at the ready in Long Island Sound to whisk the Africans to Cuba before an appeal could be filed.

But on Jan. 13, 1840, Judge Judson, a former politician who had extraordinarily low regard for blacks, nevertheless defied the White House, ruling that the Africans had been kidnapped in violation of international law, and that they could not be held as slaves under either U.S. or Spanish law. The ruling, later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, granted the Africans' wish to return to their homes.

Cinque and others, Judson ruled: "shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred."

Harold Israel, 1924