HARTFORD, Conn. - Two decades into a fight over the case of a brain-damaged defendant, Richard Lapointe's supporters claimed their first victory Monday as a Connecticut court ordered a new trial for the man serving life in prison for the rape and killing of his former wife's 88-year-old grandmother.
Supporters and advocates for people with mental disabilities have argued for years that Lapointe could not have committed the 1987 killing, insisting his mental capacity made him vulnerable to making false confessions. High-profile supporters such as writers Arthur Miller and William Styron rallied to prove his innocence.
On Monday, the state Appellate Court ruled that prosecutors suppressed key evidence during Lapointe's trial that may have supported an alibi that he was home watching television when Bernice Martin was killed. Martin was found raped, stabbed and strangled in her burning Manchester apartment.
"It's been 20 years and we're delighted that we have a shot at another trial," said George Ducharme, a retired college professor who lives in Granby and has been among the dozens of members of Friends of Richard Lapointe. "It's been one disappointment after another, and one defeat after another, and this is the first true victory to approach justice."
Lapointe's supporters lost two previous rounds of appeals. The state Supreme Court upheld his convictions in 1996 and the U.S. Supreme Court later declined to hear the case. The Appellate Court ruling overturned a lower court decision that rejected Lapointe's claims.
A new trial, however, is not certain. State prosecutors said Monday that they were reviewing the ruling and hadn't decided whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Paul Casteleiro, a Hoboken, N.J., lawyer who represented Lapointe in the latest appeal, said he was pleased nonetheless and planned to seek bail for his client.
"It's a great day for justice," Casteleiro said. "It's taken 20 years for the court to recognize the injustice that was committed here. He's an innocent man in prison."
Lapointe, 66, was convicted in 1992 of murder, arson, sexual assault and other crimes in Martin's killing and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. Key evidence included the confessions, which Manchester police obtained after questioning Lapointe for more than nine hours.
The state's second-highest court said it ordered a new trial because the state didn't disclose information about the burn time of the fire in Martin's apartment. The information was among notes taken by a Manchester police officer, who jotted down that the fire had been burning for 30 to 40 minutes before firefighters arrived at around 8:30 p.m. on March 8, 1987.
Lapointe's wife, Karen Martin, told authorities that the only time her husband was not in her sight that night was between 6:15 p.m. and 7 p.m., when she gave their son a bath. And Lapointe's lawyers cited testimony by experts who said the fire couldn't have been started any earlier than 7:30 p.m., although other experts gave conflicting testimony.
Judge Bethany Alford wrote in the 3-0 ruling that the state failing to disclose the information to the defense "affected the overall fairness of the trial and was so unfair as to undermine our confidence in the jury's verdict."
As a boy, Lapointe was diagnosed with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a congenital condition where a cyst forms on the brain from a buildup of fluid on the skull. He had five operations but suffered brain damage that left him with recurring headaches, dizziness and a short attention span. He was unable to finish high school.
Lapointe still led a seemingly normal life. He always had a job doing some sort of physical labor, such as dishwashing, and he even served as president of his condominium association. Prosecutors said his IQ was average.
He married Karen Martin, who had cerebral palsy, in 1977 and they had a healthy son, Sean. Martin's grandmother, Bernice, lived nearby.
Police and prosecutors said Lapointe walked to Bernice Martin's home the night she was killed. They said Lapointe threw her on her bed and raped her, then stabbed her with a steak knife and strangled her after she threatened to tell Karen Martin.
Defense lawyers said Lapointe didn't kill Bernice Martin and was watching TV while his wife put Sean to bed. Karen Martin said she found him in front of the television set when she came back downstairs about 45 minutes later and didn't notice anything unusual.
A relative called Karen Martin at about 8 p.m. that night, concerned that Bernice Martin wasn't answering the phone. Lapointe went over to check on Bernice Martin at the relative's request and called 911 when he saw smoke. He was there when firefighters and paramedics arrived.
Bob Perske and other supporters of Lapointe have been visiting him in prison every couple of weeks. Perske, 84, of Darien, who writes about mentally disabled defendants in criminal cases and wrongful convictions, started Friends of Richard Lapointe in 1992.
Perske says Lapointe is only 5-feet-4-inches tall and weak, while it took a strong, athletic person to kill Bernice Martin.
"We're on Cloud 9," Perske said. "We never knew if we would get this far or not, but we're pretty happy today."