Here are some things Richard Lapointe’s friends want you to know about him.
He was an avid Red Sox fan. He loved to tell jokes. He loved the Red Lobster seafood salad; it was his first meal out of prison. He was a wonderful dancer.
“He would just dance until he literally dropped, and we’d have to put him back,” said George Ducharme, co-founder of Communitas, a group that works to facilitate inclusion of people with disabilities in the community.
For years, Ducharme worked as part of a group calling itself “Friends of Richard Lapointe” to free Lapointe from prison. During every visit, Ducharme said Lapointe asked him the same three questions.
“One, am I going to get out of here? Two, have you put money in my fund? And three, will I ever see my son?” Ducharme said. “And that just killed us.”
In life, Lapointe had a condition called Dandy Walker syndrome, which results in cognitive and physical impairments. His lawyers say the disability would have made it near impossible for Lapointe to commit the violent killing he was convicted of in the early 1990s.
Ducharme and members of the “Friends” were also steadfast in their belief Lapointe was innocent. They followed Lapointe’s case over the course of more than two decades as it moved through a series of court appeals.
By the time Lapointe finally won his freedom in 2015, some of his longtime supporters were deceased.
Lapointe’s time outside prison was also fleeting. 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 lawyers were awaiting a decision from the state of Connecticut about whether Lapointe would be compensated for the 26 years he spent behind bars. That decision is still pending, snarled by a bureaucratic process that outlasted Lapointe’s remaining years as a free man.
‘Stuck in mud’
Under Connecticut law, a person is eligible to receive compensation for wrongful incarceration if they are proven innocent, or if their conviction is vacated or reversed because of malfeasance or other serious misconduct by the state.
Compensation can be significant – potentially in the millions of dollars. But the process of getting the money can be arduous.
Petitioners have the burden of proving at a hearing that they meet the eligibility criteria by a preponderance of the evidence. Payouts are tied to median household income in Connecticut, and take into account factors including the person’s age, income, and level of education when they were convicted, the time they were incarcerated and the loss of family relationships while in prison.
In Lapointe’s case, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Lapointe’s murder trial was unfair because the state withheld evidence that supported his alibi.
In 1987, Lapointe called 911 to report a fire at the apartment of his grandmother-in-law, Bernice Martin. Investigators later determined Martin had been raped, bound and murdered before her apartment was set ablaze.
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 recollection of the crime. Lapointe was convicted in 1992. He faced the death penalty but was ultimately sentenced to life without parole.
State prosecutors maintained their belief that Lapointe was guilty, but chose not to mount another trial after the conviction was overturned.
After Lapointe was freed, his legal team filed a claim in 2016 with the Office of the Claims Commissioner seeking compensation for wrongful incarceration.
The office serves as a kind of gatekeeper for people who allege they were harmed by the state. Its mandate is broad, encompassing claims that range from breach of contract and personal injury to wrongful incarceration.
But for years Lapointe’s claim languished, with the state continuing to extend its deadline to make a decision.
“We heard the same thing: that the office is overwhelmed, that there’s no staffing, there’s no anything there in terms of being able to deal with the amount of cases that are before the claims commissioner,” said Paul Casteleiro, one of Lapointe’s lawyers.
“And we were just basically stuck in mud,” he said. “And then in the meantime, Richard dies. It’s so tragic.”
Jeffrey Gutman is a professor at George Washington University Law School. He monitors how states compensate people who are exonerated.
“To my mind there’s virtually nothing worse that can happen to someone than to be wrongfully convicted, to be locked up in prison for a crime that you didn’t commit, sometimes for decades,” Gutman said. “It’s an enormous injustice. And in our country, the way we deal with injustices is to essentially pay people money to compensate them for it.”
He says on average, payouts are higher in Connecticut, but the process is slower than in other states.
“For whatever reason, it seems to take the claims commissioner a very long time to decide these cases,” he said. “And it would be good in general if the state Legislature would impose certain time restrictions on this, or direct the claims commissioner in Connecticut … to make these cases a priority.”
Lawmakers and advocates alike have decried a towering backlog of unresolved claims pending against the state.
Currently, the Office of the Claims Commissioner has two full-time employees: Commissioner Bob Shea, who took over the position earlier this year, and a paralegal. Part-time deputies can also assist. But the backlog remains extensive. About 700 open claims are pending before the commission.
Close to 30 of those claims allege wrongful incarceration. The average time those cases have been open is more than three and a half years, according to records reviewed by Connecticut Public.
There are efforts to expedite the process. For instance, lawmakers recently authorized the creation of a deputy claims commissioner position. But that job remains unfilled due to insufficient funding.
“Our office is working with the administration and with the legislature to get the funding for that position, which I believe will happen soon,” Shea said.
In the meantime, Casteleiro says the process just doesn’t work.
“This claims commissioner mechanism is flawed. It’s probably more than that kind of office can handle,” he said. “They’re handling slip-and-falls and all these different other claims against the state, and in the middle of it, they (are) kind of judge and jury over a wrongful conviction case. They’re not equipped to do that.”
A life spent behind bars
Today, Lapointe’s case has been forwarded to the General Assembly for review. His lawyers did not consent to another period of review before the claims commissioner, who sought to hold a hearing to determine if Lapointe’s estate is eligible to pursue a claim on Lapointe’s behalf after his death.
Before the conviction, Lapointe lived with his wife, who had cerebral palsy, and young son in Manchester.
“They were living in this community,” Casteleiro said. “They were making a life. They had a child that they were very proud of and a little piece of property … And these cops came along and just blew them up.”
In 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld an appellate court ruling that said Lapointe was entitled to a new trial, finding that the state withheld evidence that the fire in Martin’s apartment burned for long enough to suggest that, based on the timeframe his whereabouts were accounted for, Lapointe could not have been the one to light it.
In a majority opinion, justices wrote that their ruling also took into account that the state’s case was relatively weak because it relied on highly questionable admissions.
DNA testing also improved significantly in the years between Lapointe’s conviction and his exoneration. An 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 to comment on Lapointe’s claim for compensation. In a recent filing in the case, Tong’s office said the state “continues to maintain there was significant evidence pointing to Mr. Lapointe’s guilt.”
Pat Beeman, co-founder of Communitas and a member of “Friends of Richard,” advocated for years for Connecticut to release Lapointe from prison. She says his life was stolen by the state.
“The big thing for me is, Richard never had an angry bone in his body,” Beeman said. “Even with everything that had happened, even after he got freed. I mean, never there was never any anger about anything.”
But Beeman says she’s angry.
“I’m very angry and just so sad, because there’s so many more Richards out there,” she said.