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Hartford - Connecticut's second-highest court on Monday ordered a new trial for a brain-damaged man serving life in prison for killing his former wife's 88-year-old grandmother in 1987, ruling that prosecutors suppressed evidence before his trial two decades ago that may have supported his alibi.
Lawyers for Richard Lapointe, 66, argued that new DNA evidence proves he's innocent and that his previous attorneys were ineffective.
The state Appellate Court ruled Monday that Lapointe didn't prove his innocence, but prosecutors had suppressed key evidence and his previous attorney failed to pursue the evidence issue.
Lapointe was convicted in 1992 of killing Bernice Martin, who was found raped, stabbed and strangled in her burning Manchester apartment. Police obtained three signed confessions from Lapointe.
The court said it ordered a new trial because the state didn't disclose an expert opinion about the burn time of the fire in Martin's apartment that potentially supported Lapointe's alibi.
Judge Bethany Alford wrote in the 3-0 ruling that the state failing to disclose the information to the defense "affected the overall fairness of the trial and was so unfair as to undermine our confidence in the jury's verdict."
Lapointe's lawyers said experts concluded the fire couldn't have been started any earlier than 7:30 p.m. Lapointe's wife, meanwhile, told authorities that the only time her husband was not in her sight that night was between 6:15 and 7 p.m., when she gave their son a bath.
Lapointe's case was featured on national news shows and became a cause celebre as advocates for the mentally retarded and high-profile supporters such as writers Arthur Miller and William Styron rallied to prove his innocence. They said his mental disability made him vulnerable to being coerced into making confessions.
"It's a great day for justice," said Paul Casteleiro, a Hoboken, N.J., lawyer who represented Lapointe in the appeal. "It's taken 20 years for the court to recognize the injustice that was committed here. He's an innocent man in prison."
A prosecutor involved in the appeal didn't immediately return a message Monday seeing comment. The state may decide to appeal Monday's ruling to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
A previous appeal had been rejected by the state Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
When Lapointe was a boy, he was diagnosed with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a congenital condition where a cyst forms on the brain from a buildup of fluid on the skull.
Doctors operated five times, using a shunt to drain the liquid that left him with an enlarged head. But the condition wasn't caught in time. He suffered brain damage that left him with recurring headaches, dizziness and a short attention span. He was unable to finish high school.
But Lapointe led a seemingly normal life. He always had a job doing some sort of physical labor, such as dishwashing, and he even served as president of his condominium association. Prosecutors said his IQ was average.
He married Karen Martin, who had cerebral palsy, in 1977 and they had a healthy son, Sean. Martin's grandmother, Bernice, lived nearby.
Police and prosecutors said that Lapointe, while his wife got their son ready for bed on the night of March 8, 1987, walked to Bernice Martin's home. Authorities said Lapointe threw her on her bed and raped her, then stabbed her with a steak knife and strangled her after she threatened to tell Karen Martin.
Defense lawyers said Lapointe didn't kill Bernice Martin and only went over to her house to check on her at the request of a concerned relative, after the fire had been set. His lawyers said he watched TV while his wife put Sean to bed, and she found him in front of the television set when she came back downstairs about 45 minutes later. Karen Martin didn't notice anything unusual, defense lawyers said.
Bernice Martin's daughter, Natalie Howard, called Karen Martin, her niece, at about 8 p.m. that night, concerned that her mother wasn't answering the phone. Lapointe went over to check on Bernice Martin at Howard's request and called 911 when he saw smoke. He was there when firefighters and paramedics arrived.