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
When Harold Israel was first interviewed by Bridgeport police, he said he was in the Empire Theater watching a string of silent movies at the time the Rev. Hubert Dahme was shot to death.
But after 28 hours of interrogation, Israel admitted everything. He told police he killed the priest out of a desire to take another's life, and that he had fled along the exact course that witnesses saw the killer take. He even brought investigators to the bathroom of his rooming house, where police retrieved a shell casing Israel said had held the fatal bullet.
Four witnesses identified Israel as the man they saw running from the crime scene. Another woman, who knew Israel, said she saw him in the area around the time of the shooting, and that on an earlier occasion he told her he had a gun and was going to kill someone with it. A Bridgeport police ballistics expert declared that the fatal bullet had been fired from Israel's gun.
Homer S. Cummings, the prosecutor for Fairfield County, had an easy death-penalty case on his hands. But Cummings was determined to test all of the evidence before him.
And the more he tested, the more it turned to dust.
So on May 27, 1924 — 102 days after Harold Israel's arrest — Cummings stood before Judge L. P. Waldo Marvin, not to ask for an immediate trial, but to request that Israel be set free. And he laid out his case in a lengthy address to the court, later reprinted word-for-word in The Courant, under the screaming headline "SAVED FROM THE HANGMAN'S NOOSE."
The eyewitnesses, he said, had been inconsistent in their description of the killer, and he doubted their ability to positively identify a stranger in a police lineup weeks after seeing the person for a fleeting moment in the dark.
To test that, Cummings stood at the spots where the witnesses stood, at times that matched the lighting conditions at the time of the killing, and had a deputy recreate the assassin's flight from the crime.
Cummings said he had no doubt the witnesses saw the killer. But he said it was "utterly impossible" for them to have made a positive identification under the existing conditions, saying he was unable even to identify his own deputy.
As for the witness who said she knew Israel, Cummings determined that the luncheonette where the woman worked had a glass partition in front of the window, and it was difficult to see clearly through the double glass. Although the woman said Israel had waved to her through the window and she had waved back, Cummings said she might simply have been mistaken, and that since the waitress was a "measurably good-looking woman," it might well have been a complete stranger who waved.
Cummings also brought in a team of six prominent experts in ballistics, which he said had become an accepted science, akin to "finger-printing bullets." And every one of them said bullets fired from Israel's gun had unmistakable markings that did not match the bullet that killed Dahme. The Bridgeport police captain who declared the bullets a match was unable, Cummings said, to explain his conclusion satisfactorily when Cummings requested a demonstration.
As for Israel leading police to the shell casing, it turned out there were multiple shell casings in the bathroom, as that is where Israel and his roommates dropped their casings after target practice.
But there was still the confession, which Israel later recanted and said he had signed only because he was so tired he was willing to do anything for rest.
Cummings concluded there was "no evidence that Israel was subjected to any physical violence or any form of torture or inquisition known as 'The Third Degree.'"
But a team of doctors appointed by the state's attorney's office were unanimous in concluding that the confession was worthless, declaring that Israel was "of low mentality, of the moron type," and "peculiarly subject to the influence of suggestion."
And the details of the crime related by Israel in his confession, Cummings noted, were all details known to police.
The validity of confessions, particularly after lengthy interrogations, remains a hot topic today, leading to frequent clashes between prosecutors and defense attorneys. But 90 years ago, prosecutor Cummings took the defendant's side.
"It goes without saying that it is just as important for a state's attorney to protect the innocent as it is to convict the guilty," he declared. "In view of what I have said about every element of the case, I do not think that any doubt of Israel's innocence can remain in the mind of a candid person."
Harold Israel was set free, Hollywood turned the story into a movie 20 years later, and Cummings, who earlier had founded the firm of Cummings & Lockwood, went on to serve as U.S. attorney general.
Father Dahme's murder was never solved.
Black Panther Bobby Seale, 1970-1971
In 1969, at the height of deep civil unrest in the country, members of the Black Panther Party concluded that they had been betrayed by one of their own.
Alex Rackley, just 19 years old, was kidnapped by fellow Panthers and tortured for days at the Panthers' New Haven headquarters on Orchard Street. Beaten with sticks and doused with boiling water, he ultimately confessed, was given a bogus tape-recorded trial and driven to Middlefield where he was shot dead and dumped in the Coginchaug River.
Several Panthers were arrested in the killing, but New Haven State's Attorney Arnold Markle set his sights higher, charging Panther National Chairman Bobby Seale with ordering Rackley's killing.
With widespread distrust of law enforcement, Seale's prosecution attracted thousands of demonstrators to the New Haven Green, many predicting that Seale — and other Panthers implicated in the case — would be railroaded by a racist legal system. But it wasn't only counter-culture activists who had little faith in the justice system. As president of Yale University, Kingman Brewster said at the time he was "skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the U.S."
Seale's trial began in November 1970, with co-defendant Ericka Huggins, founder of the Panthers' New Haven chapter. Jury selection took 17 weeks, with more than 1,000 interviewed to select 12 regular jurors and two alternates.
Testimony in the case, inside a courtroom specially outfitted with bulletproof glass on the windows, took only half as long. A Black Panther who took part in killing Rackley said he acted on Seale's order. The defense said that claim alone was too thin to support a conviction. Huggins can be heard on tape, orchestrating Rackley's "trial" — but claimed in court that she was scared and simply mimicked what she was told to do.
Jurors deliberated 25 hours over six days before declaring they were hopelessly deadlocked, leading Superior Court Judge Harold M. Mulvey to declare a mistrial.
Markle, the prosecutor immediately prepared for a retrial. "Absolutely," he replied when asked if he would prosecute again. "I did my job. I'll do it again."
But the next day, Mulvey stunned the courtroom.
"The state has put its best foot forward in presenting its effort to prove its case against these defendants. They have failed to convince a jury of their guilt," Mulvey said at the end of a brief address. "With the massive publicity attendant upon the trial just completed, I find it impossible to believe that an unbiased jury could be selected without super-human efforts, efforts which this court, the state and these defendants should not be called upon to make or to endure.
"The motion to dismiss is granted in each case, and the prisoners are discharged forthwith."
Markle was furious, Panther supporters wept openly, and a dazed Ericka Huggins, who had spent the past two years behind bars, walked outside to the cheers of hundreds of demonstrators on the Green. Seale, who owed time on a contempt-of-court conviction in Illinois, headed back to his jail cell.
Peter Reilly, 1973-1974
Hours after finding his mother dead and covered in blood in the Falls Village home they shared, 18-year-old Peter Reilly was facing withering questions from state police investigators convinced he had killed her. The interrogation lasted eight hours, and at the end, police had an awkwardly worded confession that was enough for an arrest.
But there were problems with the state's case, and supporters quickly rallied around the slight teenager. Money was raised to hire a lawyer — Catherine G. Roraback, the same lawyer who had defended Black Panther Ericka Huggins. And the press began raising questions about the confession and other inconsistencies.
But a judge had declared the confession voluntary and Reilly faced murder charges, in a high-profile trial in which cameras, tape recorders and even sketch artists were barred from the courtroom in a futile effort to dampen trial publicity.
Reilly was released on a modest bail and continued his high school studies while awaiting trial. No one in town seemed to fear him in the slightest.
So with no motive and little evidence beyond a controversial and recanted confession, Reilly's defenders were confident — and then crestfallen when the jury unanimously found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter.
"People are shocked, absolutely shocked out of their heads," a Falls Village woman said after the verdict.
But the shock wave from Reilly's case was far from over and would lead to deep and lasting rifts between powerful institutions of Connecticut's government. Reilly won a new trial, after the same judge who sentenced him to prison ruled that Reilly was the victim of a "grave injustice" in the handling of his defense.
Within months, however, it was the state, not the defense, that was in the hot seat.
A new prosecutor discovered statements gathered by state police that contradicted the time sequence claimed by prosecutors — and cast doubt on whether Reilly could possibly have been the killer. But those statements were never turned over to Reilly's lawyers.
Other suppressed evidence weakened the state's case, and in November 1976, Judge Simon Cohen threw out the charges against Reilly. "I believe in the best interest of judgment that this case should be dismissed," the judge said in freeing Reilly.
Reilly's ordeal had gained national prominence by that point, and led to dueling investigations — one by then-Chief State's Attorney Joseph Gormley and another by a one-man grand juror, Judge Maurice J. Sponzo.
Gormley cleared state police and prosecutors of any wrongdoing. Months later, Sponzo issued a scathing rebuke of law enforcement, saying state police mishandled the investigation and continued a single-minded pursuit of Reilly even after evidence surfaced suggesting he was innocent.
He said the failure of prosecutors to turn over witness statements to the defense "defies a logical explanation," and dismissed Gormley's report, saying it appeared its primary objective "was to justify and protect the actions" of state police and prosecutors.
But he also concluded that no laws were broken and no one working for the state should be arrested.
Barbara Gibbons' murder remains unsolved.
Reilly went on to lead a relatively quiet life. Now in his late 50s, he emerged three years ago to testify at the legislature in favor of a bill that would require police to record interrogations in serious felony cases. Reilly's questioning in 1973 was tape-recorded, and he said some in the community who heard the tapes found the conduct of police "appalling" and were spurred to fight for his exoneration.
The bill passed, and became law last Jan. 1.
Karin Aparo, 1990
Perhaps no Connecticut criminal case in recent decades has matched the lurid appeal that surrounded the murder of Joyce Aparo and the arrest of her 16-year-old daughter Karin. And the tawdry case was capped, fittingly enough, by an unsettling made-for-TV moment as the jury announced the verdict in the pretty teenager's trial.
On Aug. 5, 1987, Joyce Aparo, a 47-year-old social worker, was found strangled under a bridge in Bernardston, Mass., 80 miles from her home in Glastonbury.
The investigation quickly focused on Dennis Coleman, Karin Aparo's 19-year-old boyfriend, who later confessed to the killing. But Aparo was arrested as well, charged as an accessory and co-conspirator after evidence revealed the pair had detailed conversations about killing Joyce Aparo.
Coleman pleaded guilty to murder in 1989 and was sentenced to 34 years in prison. Aparo took her chances with a jury, at a trial where Coleman was the star witness.
He testified about Aparo's sexual manipulation and her insistence that Joyce Aparo was trying to keep them apart. He said Aparo begged him to kill her mother, and eventually he agreed.
Aparo's defense attorney, Hubert Santos, argued that Aparo merely fantasized about her mother's demise, following years of documented physical and psychological abuse.
The case fostered strong opinions in the state, with some seeing a vulnerable and psychologically scarred girl, and others seeing a cold manipulator who used sex to turn her boyfriend into a killer — even as she was sleeping with another man.
After nine days of deliberations, jurors failed to reach a verdict on a conspiracy charge, and acquitted Aparo of being an accessory to the murder. But the verdict itself may be less memorable than the way it was delivered.
Instructed to deliver the decision of the jury, the foreman rose, winked at Aparo, and declared her not guilty.
Dozens of people called prosecutors demanding a retrial on the conspiracy charge. But higher courts deemed a second trial would be double jeopardy, and Aparo was cleared.
Aparo, now just a few years younger than her mother at the time of her death, moved out of state and got married. After her arrest, she had spent just three days in jail.
Coleman was released from prison in 2012, after more than 22 years behind bars.
Richard Lapointe, 1992
More than 27 years after Bernice Martin was brutally attacked in her Manchester apartment, the legal odyssey surrounding her killing is perhaps the most contentious and divisive active criminal case in Connecticut.
Martin was raped, strangled and stabbed 11 times, and her apartment was set on fire during the night of March 8, 1987. Police came to suspect Richard Lapointe, the husband of Martin's granddaughter and a man with a neurological defect known as Dandy Walker Syndrome. Summoned to the police station, Lapointe was subjected to a crafty and now famous police interrogation in which investigators convinced Lapointe they had DNA and other forensic evidence linking him to the crime.
He ultimately confessed, saying at one point, "If the evidence shows that I was there, and that I killed her, then I killed her, but I don't remember being there."
Lapointe said he was home watching television with his wife and son that night, and had gone out only to walk his dog and then later to check on Martin after a relative called and expressed concern that she was unable to reach the elderly woman by phone.
Lapointe's at times half-hearted confession, from a man with intellectual deficits, led many to doubt that he had rushed out of the house, brutalized his wife's grandmother, then rushed back to the house, with no change in his demeanor and no blood on his clothing.
Prosecutors said Lapointe's confession contained details only the killer would know. But defense attorneys pointed out the police knew those details too.
Jurors sided with the state, deliberating a little more than two hours before declaring Lapointe guilty of capital felony and other charges. Although he could have faced the death penalty, the jury voted to impose a life sentence.
The verdict galvanized advocates for the mentally challenged, who saw then — and still see — shortcomings in the legal system's treatment of people with neurological issues. The case also boosted a national debate over interrogation tactics, including the push to tape-record confessions.
And it has created an enduring divide between those who see Lapointe as a tragic victim and those who see him as a cunning killer. A hardy group called Friends of Richard Lapointe has spent decades working to set him free. But a generation after the crime, police and prosecutors stand by the verdict.
In nine court battles, Lapointe has won some and lost some. He won the last one: a decision by the state Appellate Court overturning a lower court ruling and ordering a new trial for the now 68-year-old former dishwasher. The Appellate Court ruled that a police detective's note about the possible start time of the fire in Bernice Martin's apartment — a note withheld from Lapointe's defense team — could have affected the jury's verdict.
But the odyssey isn't over. Prosecutors appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, in what may well be the final legal battle to determine if Lapointe goes free or spends the rest of his life in a prison cell.
A decision is expected any time now.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun