Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bad Justice 101

Exhibit A For Taping

July 20, 2007 Hartford Courant

One of the state's [Connecticut] most troubling criminal convictions in decades was back in court this week, as supporters of Richard A. Lapointe again attempted to gain a new trial. They believe he didn't commit the crime for which he has spent the last 18 years in prison. The habeas petition on Mr. Lapointe's behalf was brought in Rockville Superior Court by lawyers for Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based group that specializes in reversing wrongful convictions.

Without presuming his guilt or innocence, we believe there remain serious questions about the fairness of Mr. Lapointe's conviction. At the very least, the case argues for taping confessions. A meek, mentally handicapped man with no history of violence, Mr. Lapointe was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of his wife's 87-year-old grandmother in Manchester in 1987.

The case went unsolved for two years. Then on July 4, 1989, Manchester police invited Mr. Lapointe to the station and kept him there for almost 10 hours. He had no lawyer, and the interrogations weren't recorded. Mr. Lapointe signed three confessions.

Two were patently absurd - in one he confessed but said he didn't remember committing the crime - and a third, more detailed, confession was inconsistent on several points with forensic evidence and expert testimony, a Courant investigation found, and contained details almost certainly fed to him by police.

Would someone confess to a crime he didn't commit? Researches have found that it happens fairly often. Exhaustion, isolation and duress can distort reality. Experts such as Richard Ofshe of the University of California have documented hundreds of cases in which police have sweated confessions out of people later proved innocent. A handicapped person such as Mr. Lapointe, deferential to authority figures all his life, would be particularly vulnerable.

If his confessions had been videotaped, the jury could have gotten a sense of whether Mr. Lapointe was being coerced, was tired, was succumbing to the power of suggestion. Or not. Taped confessions also protect the police in many cases.

A bill in the General Assembly earlier this year would have set up pilot taping programs in Connecticut. It had the support of the chief state's attorney and the police chiefs association. But the legislature chose not to fund the measure - for equipment, training and standards - and so there is no program. There should be.

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Copyright © 2007, The Hartford Courant

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