Disabled man seeks $13.5M after convictions overturned

Connecticut officials are fighting a $13.5 million demand for compensation by a mentally disabled man who spent 26 years in prison before his murder conviction was overturned and he was freed

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Four years after Richard Lapointe's murder conviction was overturned and he was released from prison, Connecticut officials continue to insist the mentally disabled man brutally killed his wife's grandmother in 1987 as they now fight his demand for $13.5 million in state compensation for the 26 years of freedom he lost.

The compensation battle is playing out before the state claims commissioner, with Lapointe's lawyers saying DNA testing exonerated him and state lawyers arguing it did not. It's not clear when Commissioner Christy Scott will rule, and any approval of a payout must be approved by the state legislature.

"The nightmare continues," said Paul Casteleiro, a New Jersey lawyer representing Lapointe. "The case and the facts border on the preposterous yet they maintain he is guilty. They accomplished what they wanted to do — destroy this guy's life."

Lapointe's lawyers say he has Dandy-Walker syndrome, a congenital brain malformation. Lapointe, now 73, also has dementia and is living under 24-hour care at a nursing center, said Casteleiro, who works for Centurion Ministries, which advocates for the wrongly convicted.

Lapointe was convicted in 1992 of killing his wife's 88-year-old grandmother, Bernice Martin, who was found stabbed, raped and strangled in her burning Manchester apartment in 1987. A judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of release.

His case became a cause celebre, receiving widespread publicity as advocates for the mentally disabled and other supporters rallied to prove his innocence. Writers Arthur Miller and William Styron were among those who protested the conviction.

Key evidence for the prosecution included Lapointe's confessions during a 9 1/2-hour interrogation by Manchester police. Defense lawyers said Dandy-Walker syndrome made him gullible and vulnerable to giving a false confession.

The state Supreme Court overturned Lapointe's convictions and ordered a new trial in 2015, saying he was deprived of a fair trial because prosecutors failed to disclose notes by a police officer that may have supported his alibi defense that he was home at the time the fire began in Martin's apartment. He was freed on bail in April 2015, and prosecutors later decided not to retry him.

Lapointe's lawyers have argued that DNA testing performed after the convictions were overturned excluded him from committing the crimes and proved his innocence.

In documents filed with the claims commissioner last month, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Beizer responded that witnesses for the state will testify "the DNA testing is inconclusive, does not establish the claimant's innocence and would still allow for the claimant to be convicted.

"It remains the state's belief that the claimant is responsible for the killing of Ms. Martin," Beizer wrote.

State law allows for compensation for wrongful imprisonment, if charges are dismissed on grounds of innocence or wrongdoing by officials that contributed to the conviction and imprisonment.

Prosecutor David Zagaja said that while the "touch DNA" tests did not show evidence of Lapointe's presence at the crime scene, that doesn't mean he wasn't there.

Zagaja said the tests turned up several different partial profiles, making it appear that the crime scene was contaminated by several people, likely first responders, forensic experts and other officials.

"The problem is everyone's hands had been on those items," he said. "The integrity of the evidence is gone. It's just not there. The state is not of the opinion that this is an innocent man."

Besides the confessions, Zagaja said other proof included Lapointe suggesting shortly after Martin's death that she was raped, before anyone knew she had been sexually assaulted.