Tuesday, October 2, 2012

brain-damaged man, tricked into a confession, wins new trial

Richard LaPointe, a man with brain damage, confessed to killing his 88-year-old grandmother. After spending two decades in prison for that murder, he won a new trial.

When police in Manchester, Conn., asked Lapointe to come to the station house — just before he planned to go to a Fourth of July picnic with his wife and their son — officers took him to a small room with charts on the walls. One chart listed types of evidence: "Fingerprints," "DNA," "Pubic Hair." After each item was a big red check mark. 
It was all phony — just a trick to coax a confession. 
 Police are allowed to do that. Maybe someone else would have spotted the deception. After all, some detectives' names on the fake task force — Friday and Gannon — were right out of the TV show Dragnet.
But Lapointe, a dishwasher at a nearby restaurant, was a simple man who had brain damage. And during a police interrogation that lasted more than nine hours, he confessed. 
"If the evidence shows I was there, and that I killed her," he said in one of three confessions, "then I killed her, but I don't remember being there." 
Police are allowed to do that. 

I imagine some--most?--would say the police should not have tricked Mr. LaPointe because they took advantage of his impairment. But what of people under investigation who have no mental impairment? Again, I'd bet that most of us would say the trickery is acceptable for those because we figure they can handle themselves. How do we know law enforcement will distinguish correctly among the mentally whole and mentally impaired? And if law enforcement cannot definitely tell the difference, should they be prevented from tricking anyone under investigation?
Two decades ago, most criminal justice experts figured no innocent person would confess to a serious crime they didn't commit. That's one reason police are allowed to trick someone and claim they have evidence, even when they don't.
Really? Twenty years ago, criminal justice experts couldn't tell when they coerced a confession? Scary. 

I find hope in this story, hope that attention will be paid to cases in which someone is browbeaten into making a confession.

Even more hope comes from the comments left after that article. 

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