Here are some things Richard Lapointe’s friends want you to know about him.
He was a huge fan of the Red Sox. He loved to tell jokes. He loved the Red Lobster seafood salad. It was his first meal outside of prison. He was a great dancer.
“He was dancing until he actually fell, and we had to bring him back,” said Georges Ducharme, co-founder of Communitas, a group that works to facilitate the inclusion of people with disabilities in society.
For years, Ducharme worked as part of a group calling themselves the “Friends of Richard Lapointe” to free Lapointe from prison. During each visit, Ducharme said, Lapointe asked him the same three questions.
“First, am I going to get out of here? Second, have I put money in my chest? Third, will I ever see my son?” “And that just killed us,” Ducharme said.
In his lifetime, Lapointe had a condition called Dandy Walker Syndrome, which leads to cognitive and physical disabilities. His lawyers say his disability would have made it impossible for Lapointe to commit the violent murder for which he was convicted in the early 1990s.
Ducharme and the members of the “Friends” were also steadfast in their belief that La Pointe was innocent. They have followed La Pointe’s case for more than two decades as it moves through a series of court challenges.
By the time Lapointe finally gained his freedom in 2015, some of his old supporters were dead.
Lapointe’s time out of prison was also quick. His return to society was difficult, and Lapointe died in 2020 shortly after contracting COVID-19.
At the time of his death, Lapointe and his attorneys were awaiting a decision from the state of Connecticut on whether to compensate Lapointe for the 26 years he had spent behind bars. This decision is still pending, bogged down by the bureaucratic process that drags on after the remaining years of Lapointe’s life as a free man.
‘Stuck in the mud’
Under Connecticut law, a person is eligible for compensation for wrongful imprisonment if he or she is found innocent, or if his or her conviction has been vacated or vacated for wrongdoing or other serious misconduct by the state.
The compensation could be significant – possibly millions of dollars. But the process of getting the money can be daunting.
Petitioners have the burden of proving that they meet the eligibility criteria at a hearing by a preponderance of the evidence. The payments are tied to the median household income in Connecticut, and take into account factors including a person’s age, income and education level when convicted, time incarcerated, and loss of family relationships while in prison.
In the LaPointe case, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that LaPointe’s murder trial was unfair because the state withheld evidence supporting his alibi.
In 1987, LaPointe called 911 to report a fire at the apartment of his wife’s grandmother, Bernice Martin. Investigators later determined that Martin had been raped, bound and murdered before her apartment was set on fire.
In 1989, after a nine-hour interrogation, Lapointe signed three separate confessions, none of which matched each other or details from the crime scene. He repeatedly told officers he had no memory of the crime. Lapointe was convicted in 1992. He faced the death penalty but was eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole.
State prosecutors maintained their belief that Lapointe was guilty, but chose not to hold another trial after the conviction was overturned.
After Lapointe was released, his legal team filed a claim in 2016 with the Claims Commissioner’s Office seeking compensation for wrongful confinement.
The office acts as a gatekeeper for people who claim to have been harmed by the state. Its jurisdiction is broad, encompassing claims ranging from breach of contract and personal injury to wrongful imprisonment.
But Lapointe’s claim has been pushed back for years as the state continues to extend the deadline for a decision.
“We heard the same thing: that the office is overcrowded, that there is no staff, that there is nothing in terms of capacity to handle the caseload that comes before the claims commissioner,” said Paul Castillero, one of Lapointe’s attorneys. .
“We were stuck in the mud,” he said. “And in the meantime Richard dies. It’s very tragic.”
Jeffrey Gutman is a professor at George Washington University Law School. He monitors how states compensate people who are exonerated.
“In my opinion there is nothing worse that can happen to someone than being wrongfully convicted or locked up in prison for a crime they did not commit, sometimes for decades,” Gutman said. “It’s a huge injustice. In our country, the way we deal with injustice is to pay people money to compensate for it.
On average, he says, payments are higher in Connecticut, but the process is slower than in other states.
“For whatever reason, the claims commissioner seems to take a very long time to decide these cases,” he said. “And it would generally be a good idea for the state Legislature to impose certain time limits on this, or direct the Connecticut Claims Commissioner … to make these cases a priority.”
Lawmakers and advocates alike have decried the massive backlog of unresolved claims pending against the state.
Currently, the Claims Commissioner’s Office has two full-time employees: Commissioner Bob Shea, who took over the position earlier this year, and a paralegal. Part-time deputies can also help. But the backlog remains extensive. There are approximately 700 open claims pending before the Commission.
Nearly 30 of these claims allege wrongful imprisonment. The average time these cases have remained open is more than three and a half years, according to records reviewed by the Connecticut Public Defender.
There are efforts to speed up the process. For example, legislators recently authorized the creation of the position of Deputy Claims Commissioner. However, this post is still vacant due to insufficient funding.
“Our office is working with the administration and with the Legislature to obtain funding for this position, which I believe will happen soon,” Shea said.
Meanwhile, Castillero says the process is not working.
“This claims commissioner mechanism is flawed. “It’s probably more than this type of office can handle,” he said. “They deal with slip and falls and all these other different claims against the state, and in the middle of it, they’re sort of judge and jury in a case.” Wrongful conviction. They are not equipped to do that.”
A life spent behind bars
Today, the La Pointe case has been referred to the General Assembly for review. His lawyers did not agree to a further period of review before the Claims Commissioner, who sought a hearing to determine whether Lapointe’s estate was eligible to pursue a claim on Lapointe’s behalf after his death.
Before the conviction, Lapointe lived with his wife, who has cerebral palsy, and his young son in Manchester.
“They lived in this community,” Castillero said. “They were making a life. They had a child they were very proud of and a little piece of property…and these cops came and blew them up.”
In 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld an appeals court ruling that said Lapointe was entitled to a new trial, finding that the state had withheld evidence that the fire in Martin’s apartment had burned long enough to indicate that, based on the time frame, it had been extinguished. Determine its location. Because it could not have been Lapointe who lit it.
In the majority opinion, the justices wrote that their ruling also took into account that the state’s case was relatively weak because it relied on highly questionable confessions.
DNA testing has also improved significantly in the years since Lapointe’s conviction and acquittal. The expert who reviewed the evidence concluded that Lapointe’s DNA was not present.
Lapointe was released on bail. Later that same year, a Superior Court judge in Hartford dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it could not be retried.
Both the Claims Commissioner and State Attorney General William Tong declined requests for comment on La Pointe’s compensation claim. In a recent filing in the case, Tong’s office said the state “continues to assert that there is significant evidence pointing to Mr. Lapointe’s guilt.”
Pat Beeman, co-founder of Communitas and member of Friends of Richard, has advocated for years for the state of Connecticut to release Lapointe from prison. She says his life was stolen by the state.
“The important thing for me is that Richard never had an angry bone in his body,” Beeman said. “Even with everything that happened, even after his release. I mean, there was never any anger about anything.
But Beeman says she’s angry.
“I’m so angry and so sad because there are so many Richards out there,” she said.