Life On The Outside

I spent some time with a man who was recently released from jail after over 25 years for a murder he might not have committed. His name is Richard Lapointe, a simpleton with mental disabilities whose supporters say was not capable of pulling off the horrific crime years ago. During my time doing this story, I met a guy named Mark Schand, who was exonerated of murder, but not before he too spent a quarter century behind bars. Regardless if people think these men actually carried out those crimes, I wanted to see how people re-enter society after being on the inside for so long.

Lapointe (left) and Schand. May 20, 2015.
Lapointe (left) and Schand. May 20, 2015.

Life on the Outside

‘I’m free, but not free’: Lapointe adjusting to life outside prison

By Justin Kloczko, Manchester Journal Inquirer

May 21, 2015

It’s a windy spring afternoon on a Wednesday, and Richard Lapointe, wearing a new Boston Red Sox hat and aided by a walker, shuffles out from the passenger side of a fire-engine red Mercedes-Benz to go have lunch and play some dominoes at an East Hartford senior center.

Lapointe has been free on bond for almost six weeks now after serving 26 years for a murder he might not have committed. He’s with Mark Schand, an exoneree living in Windsor, who has been helping Lapointe with his transition back into society. They’ve just returned from court.

Every Wednesday, Lapointe checks in with the probation office at Manchester Superior Court. He has a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. curfew, and must report to a supervisor.

Lapointe is a minor celebrity at the courthouse. When he arrives, court employees point him out to one another and attorneys walk up to shake his hand and congratulate him.

“I can’t go where I want. I’m free, but not free,” Lapointe said after his meeting.

But he seems to be doing well, and his supporters say he still has his same old sense of humor. He eyes a reporter’s smart phone, and asks, “Are you gonna give me one of those?” Asked what he does in the morning, he simply says, “I open my eyes.”

And when he’s asked if Manchester — the town where he spent much of his life washing dishes and bagging groceries before being swallowed up by the criminal justice system — has changed much, he says, jokingly: “Same place. Same crummy town. It hasn’t changed any.”

Most of Lapointe’s days are spent at the adult day care center volunteering, something he did before he went away to prison. As he walks into the senior center, a number of people greet him with a jubilant, “Hi, Richard!”

“He seems to be interacting,” said George Ducharme, a Granby resident who has been a Lapointe supporter since the early 90s. “He loves to work and he loves to help.”

Lapointe is a simple person who exhibits the wide-eyed wonder and awe of a child, even at almost 70 years old. He’s a stocky 5 feet 4 inches tall, and suffers from Dandy-Walker’s syndrome, a condition that causes his brain to fill with water and also messes with his balance. He is mentally disabled as a result of the disease.

His condition also makes it easy for others to convince him of things, which is exactly what his supporters say happened in July 1989, following an almost 10-hour interrogation with Manchester police detectives that ended with him being charged with rape and murder.

The murder victim was his then-wife’s grandmother, Bernice Martin. Lapointe maintains he was at home watching television when she was raped, murdered, bound, and her apartment set fire March 8, 1987.

His supporters argue that Lapointe was convicted in a 1992 trial without any physical evidence tying him to the crime and mainly because of the confession he signed after his interview with police.

Supporters say his gullibility and susceptibility to persuasion as a result of his disease is why he signed the murder confession.

On April 10, he was bonded out and free for the first time in over a quarter century after the state’s highest court said he deserves a new trial. The Supreme Court said prosecutors had withheld evidence, including the burn time of the fire that would have supported an alibi.

Readjusting…

Today, Lapointe is slowly acclimating to the modern world from which he was cut off for so long. He has proved to be an adventurous eater, trying sushi and hummus for the first time — and liking it. He religiously eats his favorite meal, seafood salad.

When he’s out to eat, he studies the prices on restaurant menus and is astonished at how they have gone up since the last time he looked at a menu. He’s observant of everything going on around him, and comments on how cars today are much smaller than they used to be.

Lapointe lives with a couple and their child in East Hartford, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

“They’re a great family,” Lapointe said.

The couple agreed to house Lapointe until more permanent arrangements are made.

“They built their life and their philosophy and their spirit on welcoming others,” Ducharme said, “and they have in the past welcomed others that otherwise would be rejected. It’s been a huge gift to Richard.”

“I think he’s pretty happy with where he’s at and the family,” said Pat Beeman, a longtime Lapointe supporter. “I don’t think that’s an issue.”

Friends of Richard Lapointe, the group that has supported Lapointe through every fight against the criminal justice system, has been trying to help him financially. They are essentially tasked with supporting a grown man now that he is free.

“We’ve been raising (money),” Ducharme said. “We’re not really great fundraisers.”

Lapointe is on Medicaid and has qualified for some funds through Connecticut Community Care, a group that helps older adults and people with disabilities.

Centurion Ministries, the New Jersey-based nonprofit that freed Lapointe, also has been very supportive. Lapointe is the 54th person freed by the group.

Schand was the one freed before Lapointe.

A helping hand…

“In essence, I’m a 50-year-old rookie,” Schand said. “So what employer wants to hire that?”

Schand, who says he finally has a job lined up after struggling to find work, said he knows exactly what Lapointe is going through. For 27 years, Schand sat in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

Until a Massachusetts prosecutor dropped the murder charge against him in 2013, Schand was serving a life sentence for the 1986 shooting of a woman in Springfield. The woman was caught in the crossfire of bullets when she died.

Schand maintained that he was in Hartford when the gunfire went down. He was exonerated after witnesses said they falsely implicated Schand in order to serve less prison time. Three men testified Schand wasn’t even with them that night and that he had nothing to do with the crime.

He had two infants when he was jailed and his wife was pregnant. Now, they are almost 30.

“Nothing can get that time back,” Schand said.

He now helps out Lapointe to make his transition smoother.

“I’m convinced his name will be cleared,” Schand said.

Lapointe’s lawyers now are waiting to see whether prosecutors will move forward with retrying his case. A Hartford State’s Attorney has re-filed murder charges and is currently reviewing evidence.

In the meantime, Lapointe seems content just waking up in the morning, having breakfast, and going about the daily routines that many people who aren’t in his situation take for granted.

“I feel like a million dollars,” he said.

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