For the past four days I've watched a mentally disabled man sit in a Rockville courtroom doing simple word puzzles while lawyers, DNA experts and assorted criminalists debated the complicated circumstances surrounding the horrific crime he was convicted of.
Did Richard Lapointe expertly torture, tie up, rape and murder 88-year-old Bernice Martin and set her apartment on fire during a break from his Sunday evening TV watching on March 8, 1987?
I don't know what happened. But I cannot see how this gullible former dishwasher with Dandy-Walker syndrome committed the brutal felony murder he was convicted of in 1992.
There was no motive. There was no evidence of any history of violent behavior.
There was a man with an IQ of 80, with a syndrome that makes him easily manipulated. There were police investigators who thought nothing of exploiting this.
Shameful doesn't begin to describe this travesty.
The most controversial aspects of the Lapointe conviction have been on display all week in Judge John Nazzaro's court. Nazzaro —who has listened intently and closely questioned witnesses — must decide whether Lapointe deserves a new trial based on whether certain evidence was suppressed.
We've heard about the pathetic performance of his original lawyers, who failed to exploit a pubic hair found on the victim's clothing that didn't belong to Lapointe or Martin, who virtually ignored the significance of a pair of gloves found at the murder scene belonging to neither Lapointe nor Martin.
I cannot know what lurks behind Lapointe's bland demeanor. But 21 years later, it is difficult to hear about the "confessions" that Manchester police extracted from a man his lawyers and friends say will believe what you tell him to believe.
"The police had intentionally tricked Mr. Lapointe," one of his lawyers at the 1992 trial, Public Defender Patrick J. Culligan, reminded Nazzaro when he testified this week. Manchester police investigators created phony props and false information "for the purpose of persuading Mr. Lapointe that the police had assembled evidence of his guilt."
Lapointe has a malformed brain. He is easily duped.
No wonder police made no audio or video recording of their nine-hour interrogation of Lapointe. When they interviewed Lapointe's wife, police surreptitiously taped the entire encounter.
On Thursday, with Karen Martin, now Lapointe's ex-wife, on the stand, lawyers played her July 4, 1989, recorded interview with police Officer Michael Morrissey. As Martin, who is disabled herself, defended Lapointe, Morrissey told her "we are not looking to sell him down the river and write him off."
"I am looking for an explanation here, Karen," Morrissey told her. "I don't want to bring you into it."
Unsettling contradictions between Lapointe's confessions and the reality of the crime scene have never been clarified. Lapointe said that Martin wore a pink housecoat and they drank a cup of coffee before the murder, which Lapointe said occurred on a couch.
Bernice Martin wore a blue sweater and dark slacks that night. No coffee cup was ever recovered from the crime scene. The murder occurred on her bed, where a violent struggle took place. Lapointe said he strangled Martin with his hands, but the medical examiner said she was asphyxiated with a blunt object.
The discovery that the state didn't reveal critical notes from a police investigator that suggest a "possible" 30- to 40-minute burn time for the fire — evidence that supports Lapointe's alibi — was what brought the Lapointe case back to court this week.
State prosecutors spent the week meticulously challenging this. Former investigators called to testify about this critical evidence came down with a case of forgetfulness on the witness stand.
All of this can make you believe that something really ugly happened to Lapointe.
"We want the judge to understand that the state's case against him is not solid. Richard Lapointe could not have committed it," said Kate Germond, associate director and investigator with Centurion Ministries, whose lawyers are representing Lapointe.
"The Richard Lapointe story really ought to be titled 'They Should've Been Ashamed,'" Germond said. Police "knew they could get an easy confession. A confession trumps everything."
We think justice is about assessing right and wrong. Without dramatic action from the judge, the Lapointe case will remain a decadeslong miscarriage of justice.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun