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Brain-Damaged Man Wins New Trial In Two-Decades-Old Killing

Richard Lapointe confessed in 1989 that he stabbed, raped and killed his wife's 88-year-old grandmother two years earlier. But in the 23 years since, experts in criminal justice have come to better understand how sometimes people make false confessions — especially someone with brain damage, like Lapointe. On Monday, Connecticut's state Appellate Court ordered a new trial, saying prosecutors wrongly withheld potentially important evidence.

"It's one of the iconic cases in the annals of false confessions," said Steve Drizin, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and a law professor at Northwestern University Law School.

When police in Manchester, Conn., asked Lapointe to come to the station house — just before he planned to go to a Fourth of July picnic with his wife and their son — officers took him to a small room with charts on the walls. One chart listed types of evidence: "Fingerprints," "DNA," "Pubic Hair." After each item was a big red check mark.

It was all phony — just a trick to coax a confession.

Police are allowed to do that. Maybe someone else would have spotted the deception. After all, some detectives' names on the fake task force — Friday and Gannon — were right out of the TV show Dragnet.

But Lapointe, a dishwasher at a nearby restaurant, was a simple man who had brain damage. And during a police interrogation that lasted more than nine hours, he confessed.

"If the evidence shows I was there, and that I killed her," he said in one of three confessions, "then I killed her, but I don't remember being there."

Two decades ago, most criminal justice experts figured no innocent person would confess to a serious crime they didn't commit. That's one reason police are allowed to trick someone and claim they have evidence, even when they don't.

But much has changed since Lapointe confessed.

"The biggest development since Richard was arrested is the impact that DNA evidence has had on the criminal justice system," Drizin says.

There have been 300 people exonerated by DNA evidence. When the Innocence Project reviewed those cases, it found that in 1 out of 4, a defendant later proven innocent had at one point given a self-incriminating statement, pleaded guilty or just confessed.

Lapointe was not helped by DNA evidence. But Drizin says those cases where an innocent person confessed show how someone like Lapointe may have confessed to a crime he didn't commit, and that people with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to making a false confession. Lapointe was born with Dandy-Walker syndrome, a malformation of the brain that affects memory, learning and thinking.

Another change is that in 1989, only one state, Alaska, required police to tape-record interrogations. Today, Drizin says, some 20 states require it.

"If the jury had heard a tape-recording of the interrogation, they would have heard exactly the techniques that were used by the police," says Lapointe's current attorney, Paul Casteleiro, working with Centurion Ministries. "They knew who they brought in when they brought in Richard Lapointe. They knew that he was a pliable person."

The court decision Monday did not address the issue of false confession. The court said prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that supported Lapointe's alibi that he could not have been at the old woman's apartment at the time of the murder. In the past, Connecticut prosecutors said additional evidence would not have made a difference at the trial. Now, a spokesperson for the Chief State's Attorney said the office is reviewing the decision.

In 2004, NPR aired a story about Lapointe and the volunteers who rallied behind him over the past two decades.

Bob Perske, one of those key Friends of Richard Lapointe, who was profiled in that earlier story, said on Monday, "I'm on cloud nine."

Perske said Lapointe had lost hope in recent years, and when Perske and two other friends saw Lapointe in one of their regular visits to his state prison last week, Lapointe said he doubted he'd ever be freed.

"He'll say, 'I'm getting out of here in a body bag,' " Perske said.

Now, Casteleiro, the attorney, said he'll ask for Lapointe's release. Prosecutors will decide whether to seek a retrial.

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Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.
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