By Leigh Ann Davis, Program Manager, Justice Initiatives
If you had been in prison since 1987 for a crime you didn’t do – missing nearly three decades of your life – and then were released and had charges dismissed, would you believe you had received justice? I would not.
While attending The Arc’s national convention in Indianapolis this month, I received news that so many of us had been waiting for: charges against Richard Lapointe, a man with intellectual disability who had been in prison since 1987 until April of this year for a rape and murder he did not commit, were dismissed and he was finally a free man! After a lengthy, coercive interview with police, Lapointe falsely confessed to the crime, which was committed against his then-wife’s grandmother. Since then, his legal team and advocates (including advocates within The Arc at the local, state and national levels) have been fighting for his case to be reconsidered because of his intellectual disability.
In the spring, the Connecticut state Supreme Court raised concerns about the circumstances of the interrogation and the truthfulness of the alleged confessions, and ordered that he be released or given a new trial. Then prosecutors agreed not to pursue the means to keep him in prison while they decided whether to challenge the state Supreme Court decision. Richard lived in an unbearable stage of limbo – until last Friday, when charges were formally dropped.
“Freedom is when I can walk down the street and wave to somebody and not worry that, that they’re gonna think I’m trying to be trouble,” Lapointe said in the Hartford Courant, June 15, 2015
The decades of advocacy it took to right this monumental wrong was thanks to dedicated advocates who never gave up hope that Richard would one day be a free man. Robert Perske founded The Friends of Richard Lapointe more than 20 years ago when, during Lapointe’s first week in court, he noticed that not one person was sitting on Richard’s side of the courtroom – except Perske. By the next Monday morning, some 30 people sat behind Richard in court thanks to Perske’s quick and persuasive advocacy work. Since that time, many have joined the cause and The Friends of Richard Lapointe was born. Perske is a legendary giant in the field of false confessions of people with intellectual disabilities. He is also a respected author, advocate and long-time supporter of The Arc. He compiled a list of people with intellectual disabilities who gave false confessions in order to document just how often false confessions are coerced out of people with intellectual disabilities, and to show how devastating the outcome can be. Those accused of crimes they did not commit often face the greatest injustice of all, some losing their lives when coerced into giving false confessions. Since 1983, over 60 people with intellectual disabilities have been executed based on false confessions. Lapointe, who became one of Perske’s closest friends throughout this ordeal, was on Perske’s list – until last Friday.
Too many people with intellectual disability are trapped in situations similar to Richard’s, or become involved in the criminal justice system because their disability was never noticed, seriously considered or accommodated. To address this injustice, The Arc received funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance to create the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) two years ago, the first national effort of its kind to bring together both victim and suspect/offender issues involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) under one roof. NCCJD is a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for criminal justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with I/DD, whose disability often goes unrecognized, and who are overrepresented in the nation’s criminal justice system.
Thanks to a recent continuation grant from DOJ, NCCJD will be able to continue building bridges between the worlds of disability and criminal justice. The work is incredibly important, and every day I know I am making a difference. I see how far chapters will go to support the cause of justice in their states and local communities. But it’s going to take an entire systemic shift to make sure that there are no more Richards behind bars for a day, let alone decades.
You can be a part of the solution, starting today. Join NCCJD’s mission to begin finding solutions to the problems that plague our criminal justice system. Together, we can:
- Refuse to accept that this is how it as to be.
- Refuse to believe that because a person has no advocate in his or her life, that person has to fight alone in their struggle to find justice.
- Refuse to ignore the countless number of cases like Richard’s or the cracks in the system that lead to blatant violation of human rights.
There are many ways to get involved, whether it’s something as simple as following NCCJD on Facebook to stay updated on current issues, listening to archived webinars, adding resources to the state-by-state map, or creating a Disability Response Team and offering training to criminal justice professionals right where you live. Every action, big or small, has a ripple effect that can change the tide toward freedom and justice. Let NCCJD support you in changing the tide in your community, one case and one Richard at a time.