In 1992, Richard Lapointe was convicted after confessing to the murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault of his wife’s grandmother in Manchester. The case had been unsolved for two years and the police finally were able to close the book on the horrific attack. There was only one problem – he didn’t do it.
Three years prior, the case was reassigned to a new detective. He became convinced that Richard, who was small in stature and suffered from a congenital brain condition, was the perpetrator. One day, the detective asked Lapointe to come into the station. He had elaborately staged an interrogation room to look like a scene from a movie, with pictures hung and documents spread out. He pretended as if Lapointe was there to help him solve the murder. However, he quickly turned on him. He lied to him telling him there was scientific evidence showing he did it and that his wife had implicated him, when she had not.
It so happened that at the same time Lapointe was being interrogated, another detective went to his home and interrogated his wife. The detective repeatedly threatened her with imprisonment and told her they would take away her son if she was found to be lying, trying to coerce her into implicating her husband; but she firmly maintained that Lapointe had been home during the time the crime occurred.
However, Lapointe did not fare as well under the pressure. Over more than nine hours of being interrogated, three different statements were elicited from him that were considered confessions. None of them matched the facts of the crime. Regardless, it was enough to convict him of a crime he didn’t commit and to stop looking for the actual perpetrator of this horrible attack.
In 2000, Centurion Ministries took on Lapointe’s case and discovered critical documents from the state that were unconstitutionally withheld at his trial. This ultimately led to the unraveling of the case against him; but, it never should have required the discovery of this evidence. The case against Lapointe hung on those clearly coerced false confessions, and never should have stood in the first place.
Too often, judges and juries believe false confessions, unable to discern a true confession from a false one. The general belief is that false confessions are rare, but the cases of Connecticut’s exonerees demonstrate that confessions derived under conditions like those Lapointe was subjected to cannot be trusted. Counterintuitive as false confessions may be, DNA-based exonerations have shown that they are a frequent contributing factor to wrongful convictions. In fact, they are the most common contributing factor among homicide exonerations proven through DNA.
The cases of exonerees who have falsely confessed – including Lapointe and nine others here in Connecticut – show us that doing so is often a perfectly rational choice. Psychologically coercive interrogation techniques, such as lying about evidence or leniency, using or threatening the use of force, and compromising the suspect’s reasoning ability through exhaustion, stress, and hunger, are found throughout these cases. While most law enforcement officers may not employ these methods regularly, they are legal. And, we see a categorical link between false confessions that have led to wrongful convictions and their use. Leaving them legally permissible allows for the outliers to continue to risk the misidentification of perpetrators and the wrongful conviction of the innocent.
Law enforcement, prosecutors, and those working to exonerate the innocent have joined together in several states to ban tactics such as these. Each has recognized that these coercive conditions create an environment unconducive to investigations in the face of more reliable methods. Connecticut must take accountability for the harm caused to numerous of its citizens. The legislature should pass Senate Bill 306, which will close the door on these harmful and unnecessary methods.
Lapointe and his wife had persevered through the challenges life had thrown at them to live a content life with their young son when these tragic events took place, throwing their life into disarray. Lapointe trusted the police, who took full advantage of him knowing his disabilities made it impossible for him to have done it. He lost his family, and 26 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. We owe it to him– and the other individuals who have been wrongfully convicted in Connecticut, and across this country – to ban the use of deceptive and coercive interrogation tactics in Connecticut.
Paul Casteleiro is the Legal Director for Centurion Ministries, Inc, and represented Richard Lapointe in his second writ of habeas corpus, which led to his exoneration. Tragically, Lapointe passed away in August 2020, at the age of 74, after battling COVID-19.