Hey Serial, Here’s Your Next Podcast

Richard Lapointe
Richard Lapointe in prison in the early 90s. Jim Michaud / Journal Inquirer

In 1989, Richard Lapointe, a simple man with mental disabilities, was living in Manchester, Connecticut and working dead-end jobs like washing dishes and bagging groceries when he was arrested for the rape and murder of his then-wife’s grandma. Bernice Martin was stabbed 11 times, tied up, and her apartment was set on fire. A jury convicted him in the early 90s for the crime. The guy has been serving a life sentence for it, but a state Supreme Court decision last month said he didn’t get a fair trial, and has been ordered a new one. I was there on Friday when a judge let him out on bond after being locked up for over a quarter of a century.

A lot of people say he didn’t do it. There is no DNA evidence or witnesses linking him to the murder. Lapointe was convicted mainly because of three confessions he signed after an intense, almost 10-hour long interrogation by Manchester detectives, two years after the murder.

In essence, Lapointe was pretty much brain washed into confessing. His advocates say he was coerced into confessing because he is an easily persuaded man who suffers from a syndrome that, among other things, makes him gullible. Police basically told him over and over again that he had blacked out, and that was why he didn’t remember doing the murder. Lapointe eventually told them that he didn’t remember, but if they said he did it, then he did it. Detectives also falsely hung over Lapointe’s and his wife’s head that they had evidence he committed the murder. Lapointe had no lawyer by his side and the interrogations were not recorded.

This is a pretty interesting case that has gotten lots of attention over the years. Twenty years ago, a colleague at my paper, Alex Wood, wrote an extensive series comparing Lapointe’s interviews with detectives to trial testimony, and a lot didn’t match up. You can read it here. Wood investigated the case so deeply that he uncovered evidence, ended up testifying , and was eventually taken off the case by editors because he essentially became part of the story. The whole thing goes to show how investigating detectives and prosecutors should be just as much about proving themselves wrong as they are about proving themselves right. It looks like in this case that police badly wanted a suspect. They created one in Lapointe.

And if Lapointe didn’t do it, then who did? Some say it was Freddie Merrill, the state’s infamous “Peanut Butter Bandit” who escaped prison many times. One of those times was when his mother sent him a jar of peanut butter with a gun inside. The way Bernice Martin’s murder was carried out was very similar to one that Merrill committed around the same time. The victim was also an elderly woman. One person said they saw Merrill at a bar by the Martin murder that night, and there was one witness account of seeing a man fleeing the burning building the evening of the murder.

I road up in an elevator with Lapointe after his release. It was hard talking to him. The man is deaf, and has the personality of a 10-year-old child. But it was an emotional scene watching the man leave prison after so many years. Here’s what I wrote:

After Almost 26 Years, Lapointe Released From Custody

By Justin Kloczko, Manchester Journal Inquirer

On Friday, Richard Lapointe put on civilian clothes for the first time in nearly 26 years, walked out of state custody, and then got his first taste of the 21st century: He took a selfie on a cellphone.

The 69-year-old man whom advocates say has been wrongly convicted of the 1987 rape and murder of his then-wife’s grandmother Bernice Martin in Manchester entered the free world after a Hartford Superior Court judge said he could be let out of prison on a $250,000 bond. He had been serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The hearing came just over a week after the state Supreme Court, in a divided 4-to-2 decision, ruled that Lapointe deserved a new trial because prosecutors failed to disclose evidence at his original 1992 trial.

That evidence — a note that outlined the burn time of a fire set in Martin’s Mayfair Gardens apartment at the time of the rape, murder, and arson — may give Lapointe an alibi about where he was at the time of the crime.

Lapointe maintains he was at home watching TV when the incident took place March 8, 1987.

Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that defends the wrongfully convicted, put up Lapointe’s bond. His lead lawyer, Paul Casteleiro, said Lapointe is an innocent man.

“He should have never been in the courtroom in the first place,” Casteleiro said after Lapointe’s release.

Advocates of Lapointe said he was coerced into signing confessions after an almost 10-hour interrogation with Manchester detectives on the night of July 4, 1989, that resulted in his arrest. Lapointe said he didn’t remember what happened on the evening in question.

Lapointe is a plaintive man who suffers from Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a condition where water fills up parts of the brain. As a result, he is extremely susceptible to persuasion.

“Anybody who knows him knows you can get him to say a lot of things,” Casteleiro said.

Going forward

The next step is waiting to hear from the state’s attorney’s office to see if it will move forward with prosecuting the case in a retrial.

“We hope the state’s attorney will review it and dismiss the charges,” Casteleiro said.

Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy said she is reviewing all the evidence in the case. She said Martin’s family is “concerned” about Lapointe’s release. Her grandchildren were present in the courtroom during Lapointe’s bail hearing.

As conditions of his release, Lapointe must have no contact with Martin’s family and maintain a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew.

A young couple from East Hartford will be providing Lapointe with housing until something more permanent is found.

Outside the courtroom Friday, Manchester resident Pat Beeman, who has been advocating for Lapointe’s innocence along with the Friends of Richard Lapointe group from the beginning, started to cry.

“Richard for 26 years has asked how his son is,” Beeman said.

The two have not been in contact and cannot as a result of the court order.

Asked what he missed the most while being in prison, Lapointe said “my family.”

His group of advocates will decide how to support Lapointe now that he is out of prison. They have suggested starting a social media campaign like Kickstarter to raise money for him online.

Out in the world

After he bonded out and his handcuffs were taken off, Lapointe traded in his orange jumpsuit for a collared shirt and a T-shirt over it that said: “I didn’t do it.”

He then walked outside the Hartford courthouse holding hands with Casteleiro and Kate Germond, the director of Centurion Ministries. They then all raised their hands in the air while supporters and a large group of media closed in on him.

During a news conference afterwards at the Hartford Hilton, a portrait of a man cut off from the modern world emerged. He sat in awe while playing with a cellphone camera and learned the years his favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, won the World Series.

Most of his comments were short, spurred by questions from reporters. He maintained that he didn’t commit the rape and murder of Martin, and he said he looked forward to enjoying a steak dinner.

“Thank you to everyone who helped me get out of jail,” he said.

He’s due back in Hartford Superior Court on May 15.

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Lapointe leaving Hartford Superior Court Friday. Jared Ramsdell / Journal Inquirer
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