Justice delayed is justice denied, goes the saying, but really, we all know that justice delayed is better than no justice at all. And so it may be for Richard Lapointe, whose 20 year old conviction for raping, killing and setting alight his grandmother-in-law has become a cause celebre of sorts for people across the State.
Today, after 4 appeals and 2 habeas corpus petitions¹, he finally received the relief he sought and that many people thought he long deserved. The Appellate Court² issued an opinion [PDF] today ordering a new trial after finding that a Brady violation undermined their confidence in his conviction.
In order to understand the significance of this decision, we must first have a bit of background on the facts of the case: On March 8, 1987, the defendant called the emergency telephone number, 911, to report a fire at the Manchester apartment of the victim. Earlier that day, he and his wife had visited the victim between 2 and 4pm, as was their custom. They returned home where they all remained until approximately 7:45pm when the defendant received a call from the victim’s daughter stating that she hadn’t heard from the victim and asked the defendant to go check on her. Important to note is that the defendant’s wife was giving their son a bath between 6:15 and 7:00pm while Lapointe sat in the living room watching TV.
He went to the victim’s apartment and upon receiving no response to his knocking, went to a neighbor’s apartment to call the daughter who again reiterated her concern. He returned to the victim’s apartment and smelled some smoke, whereupon he went back to the neighbor and called 911.
Firefighters arrived around 8:30pm and found her dead. For two years, there were no further leads. On July 4, 1989, Lapointe, who had been diagnosed with Dandy-Walker syndrome as a teen, was subjected to a nine hour
interrogation interview, during which he eventually confessed to everything (let’s not forget, kids, that an interview of such absurd length has little to no bearing on its voluntariness). He was then arrested and convicted.
So where’s this Brady violation I mentioned earlier? Ah, I’m glad you asked. The lead detective on the case, Detective Ludlow, had written some notes after interviewing fire marshals. His relevant note? “30-40 min. Poss.”
In other words, the estimate of the state fire marshals was that the fire was set 30-40 minutes before firefighters arrived at the scene, which would place it as beginning around 7:45pm.
The failure to turn over the note lead to a domino effect that substantially changed the trial strategy: with no note, the defense didn’t hire its own arson expert; it didn’t call Lapointe’s by-then-ex-wife because she was hostile to him; it didn’t present an alibi defense.
So, Lapointe, who conceivably could have been at home at the time the fire was alleged to have started, was convicted. The State argued that the note really wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The appellate court dispenses with that argument masterfully:
Further, if Karen Martin had testified and the jury believed her testimony, the jury could have concluded that the petitioner had, at most, a forty-five minute window of time within which to commit the crimes. This would mean that between 6:15 p.m. and 7 p.m., on the night of the homicide, the petitioner:
- walked the distance between his home and the victim’s apartment;
- had a cup of coffee with the victim while they were chatting on the couch;
- used the victim’s bathroom, located close to the victim’s bedroom;
- emerged from the bathroom, saw the victim combing her hair and decided to sexually assault her;
- undressed himself, then tore the clothes off the victim;
- sexually assaulted the victim;
- retrieved a knife from the kitchen;
- stabbed the victim ten times in the back and once in the abdomen;
- used strips of cloth to tie them as a ligature so tightly around the victim’s neck that the responding firefighters had difficulty removing the cloth;
- loosely tied bindings around the victim’s wrists and stomach area;
- removed the victim from the bed and placed her on or near the couch;
- washed any blood from his body and dressed himself;
- set fires in three separate locations in the victim’s apartment; and
- walked the distance from the victim’s apartment back to his home.
According to Karen Martin’s recorded statements to Morrissey on July 4, 1989, and her testimony at the suppression hearing, which the jury did not hear, the petitioner was sitting in the living room when she came downstairs from bathing their son, and there were no signs of exertion or excitement. She noticed nothing out of the ordinary in his behavior that evening.
Doesn’t that make you question the reliability of the verdict? It applied the correct standard (and, in my opinion, the easier one) in determining whether Lapointe deserves a new trial: whether the Brady violation created a reasonable probability that the outcome would’ve been different. The court didn’t decide – and couldn’t, really, under the now onerous standard set by our supreme court in another travesty: Gould v. Commissioner – that Lapointe was innocent. Certainly, there is evidence to support either proposition: there is DNA found at the scene that doesn’t belong to him and then there’s his knowledge of the sexual assault before it was apparently known to the police or medical personnel. But all of that, combined with the potentially exculpatory note pretty clearly establishes one thing: that we can’t be sure if he’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
And really, given that that’s the standard we employ in our criminal justice system, that’s all we should require.
¹I cannot tell you how sweet it is that this reversal comes on a successive or second habeas petition. That very instrumentality that the State has been making a din about for so long and claiming that it’s clogging up the courts. We should never put an arbitrary limit on avenues for seeking justice. Justice delayed is better than no justice at all.
²I often go on rants criticizing the Connecticut Supreme Court (although lately they’ve been giving me plenty of reason to STFU), but I don’t praise the Appellate Court nearly as often as I should for their decisions, which seem to show a greater respect for individual rights and a reluctance to let their opinions be guided by the outcome they seek to achieve. So, here’s to you, Appellate Court. Until you piss me off, that is.