New trial for man convicted of killing wife's grandma in '87

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Posted: Mar 31, 2015 7:22 PM
New trial for man convicted of killing wife's grandma in '87

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a new trial for a brain-damaged man sentenced to life in prison for the 1987 killing of his wife's 88-year-old grandmother — a conviction protested by high-profile supporters including writers Arthur Miller and William Styron.

The court ruled 4-2 that Richard Lapointe, 69, was deprived of a fair trial because prosecutors failed to disclose notes by a police officer that may have supported an alibi defense. The decision upholds an earlier ruling by the state Appellate Court, which in 2012 overturned Lapointe's convictions for capital felony murder, sexual assault and other crimes.

At his trial in 1992, Lapointe was convicted of killing Bernice Martin, who was found stabbed, raped and strangled in her burning Manchester apartment. A judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of release.

Lapointe's lawyer and supporters said the evidence showed he could not have committed the crimes and his mental disability made him vulnerable to giving a false confession. His case became a cause celebre, receiving widespread publicity as advocates for the mentally disabled and other supporters rallied to prove his innocence.

Justice Richard Palmer wrote in the majority opinion, "The state deprived the petitioner of the opportunity to avail himself of highly relevant alibi evidence. ... Fundamental fairness requires that the petitioner be afforded the opportunity to have a second jury consider that exonerating testimony."

Palmer added: "Our conclusion takes due account of the fact that the state's case against the petitioner was relatively weak, founded as it was on highly questionable admissions."

Hoboken, New Jersey, lawyer Paul Casteleiro, who represented Lapointe in the appeal, said he would seek bail for Lapointe as soon as possible and planned to visit him Wednesday in prison. He said temporary living arrangements for Lapointe, who was arrested in July 1989, have already been put in place if he is able to post bail.

"It's a just opinion and it does justice, finally, after 25 years," Casteleiro said. "We had compelling evidence and the jury was deprived of it."

A spokesman for the chief state's attorney's office said prosecutors were reviewing the ruling and had no comment.

At issue in the case were Lapointe's whereabouts when the fire at Martin's apartment began. Lapointe, who had gone to the apartment to check on Martin at the request of a family member, called 911 to report the fire shortly before 8:30 p.m. on March 8, 1987. Firefighters found Martin's body inside.

Manchester Sgt. Michael Ludlow later talked with state fire marshals and took notes of the conversation. The defense said Ludlow's note indicated that the fire started between 7:50 p.m. and 8 p.m., when Lapointe's now-ex-wife, Karen Martin, said he was home, showing Lapointe couldn't have started the fire.

Defense lawyers said they didn't know about Ludlow's notes until 1999, and if they had known, they would have presented more evidence of an alibi for Lapointe at his trial.

Assistant State's Attorney Timothy Sugrue argued there was plenty of other proof, including Lapointe's confession, physical evidence including a semen stain and pubic hair and his telling a family friend that Bernice Martin had been raped before police had any information of a sexual assault.

Lapointe's lawyers and supporters say the confession was false. They cite his mental disability and say the pubic hair didn't match Lapointe and the semen stain only showed it came from someone with the same blood type as Lapointe.

Lapointe suffers from Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a congenital brain malformation that results in hydrocephalus, or water on the brain.

Palmer wrote that it was difficult to imagine why Lapointe would want to kill Martin.

"One searches the record in vain for evidence that he ever was physically violent, that he suffered from a mood disorder, psychosis, drug addiction or anything else that could explain why, after visiting the victim every Sunday for years, he suddenly went back to her apartment on the Sunday in question and brutally murdered her, without his wife noticing either that he had left their house or any change in his demeanor or appearance upon his return," Palmer wrote.