False Confessions, Finally Justice-Steven Drizin, Center on Wrongful Convictions

Friday’s exoneration of Damon Thibodeaux (La.) – the 300th– was just the start of a glorious week for those who follow false confessions. It’s hard to top walking an innocent false confessor off of death row (Thibodeaux) but yesterday’s decision by an appellate court in Connecticut in the case of Richard Lapointe comes pretty close (see attached opinion).

Lapointe was tricked into confessing to the murder and sexual assault (and arson to cover up the crime) of Bernice Martin, an elderly relative of his wife’s. Born with a rare mental disability – Dandy Walker Syndrome – which heightened his already suggestible and compliant nature, Lapointe was no match for the aggressive tactics used by the police. He ultimately confessed and even thought the confession was at odds with the objective evidence of the crime and an alibi – he was watching television – made it virtually impossible for him to have committed the crime, he was convicted.

Over the past nearly two decades, a group of advocates – the Friends of Richard Lapointe – have done everything in their power to bring attention to his plight. Led by Bob Perske – whose work on documenting the connection between mental disabilities and false confessions – is groundbreaking, Donald Connery (whose worked help bring attention to the issue of false confessions in the Peter Reilly case in Connecticut in the 1970’s) and too many others to name, the group has suffered through what has been a series of seemingly crushing legal disappointments. It appeared that no Connecticut court was ever going to take a look at the full context of what happened to Lapointe and give him a new trial.

Enter Kate Germond of Centurion Ministries, the matron saint of hopeless causes. Centurion Ministries, based in Princeton, NJ, is the first “innocence project” in the United States. Founded in 1983, by Jim McCloskey, CM has exonerated dozens of persons over the years in the US and Canada. The men and women they have exonerated – in both DNA and non-DNA cases — have served a total of 956 years in prison. www.centurionministries.org Germond, an investigator, and Paul Casteleiro – a long-time go-to lawyer for CM – agreed to take a look at the case and scour the record for a new way back into court. DNA testing excluded Lapointe of most of the evidence but was not definitive enough to clear him of the crime. But a new hook was found – a hook that didn’t seem promising – because it required the post-conviction court to recognize prosecutorial misconduct (a Brady violation) and ineffective assistance of counsel. Investigator’s notes about the burn time of the fire, when considered in light of Lapointe’s alibi – proved that Lapointe could not have committed the crime during the time frame of the police and that of his confession. Of course, these notes had not been turned over at trial and one of Lapointe’s many post-conviction lawyers did not recognize the significance of the notes. But Germond and Casteleiro did. They hired some of the best arson experts in the country to discuss the burn time of the fire and the notion that the burn time and argued that the burn time made it virtually impossible for Lapointe to have committed the crime. After another round of disappointment in the trial court, they appealed the denial of a new trial to the appellate court. And yesterday, an appellate court reversed Lapointe’s conviction and ordered a new trial. When he learned of the decision, a stunned Casteilero replied “Holy Mackerel.”

I’ve always loved the phrase “Holy Mackerel” — even used it myself. I remember hearing from my father utter it and it was a favorite saying of sports announcer Al McGuire (it’s so much better than Harry Caray’s “Holy Cow” although I have to admit that Chicago’s stockyard history and love of the hot dog make Caray’s more appropriate for Chicago). But I’ve always wondered: what’s so holy about Mackerel?. You don’t see mackerel on the menus of most top fish restaurants and it is way down the pecking order of most popular fish (tuna, salmon, herring, tilapia, etc.). Not even sure I’ve ever tasted one. Here’s the derivation:

Etymology

Recorded from 1803 with uncertain origin, but possibly a euphemism for Holy Mary, with Mackerel being a nickname for Catholics because they ate the fish on Fridays. Another suggested explanation is the practice of selling mackerel on Sundays in the seventeenth century (because its quality deteriorates rapidly), so it was known as a holy fish.

Whatever the origin—it aptly sums up what everyone who has been working to clear Richard Lapointe’s name must have felt when they read this opinion. The State is currently weighing its options which include an appeal to the Conn. Supreme Court. Here’s hoping that they decide not to appeal this case again (and ultimately decide not to retry it). Now that would be a “holy mackerel” moment!