Give Lapointe a new trial and better-informed jury

At last Richard Lapointe’s lawyers have produced a motion for a new trial that has enough substance to compel the attention of the state Supreme Court, which heard argument on it the other day.

Lapointe, the mentally handicapped man convicted in 1992 of raping and murdering his wife’s grandmother in Manchester five years before, has been in prison since his arrest in 1989. The crime involved a fire apparently meant to cover the perpetrator’s tracks, and Lapointe’s lawyers argue that a police detective’s note about the fire’s likely duration should have been provided to the defendant because it could have been construed to exonerate him.

As a legal point this isn’t much more than a contrivance. For Lapointe was convicted not because of anything about the fire or any physical evidence against him — there was none — but because of three contradictory and absurd confessions he gave police under a long interrogation two years after the crime. Lapointe’s original lawyers failed to impress the jury about the phenomenon of false confession, which is common, especially among terrified and intimidated people, but is little recognized.

As Lapointe was simpleminded and generally odd, to convict him in the absence of other evidence his jury had to have been inclined to believe anything bad about him.

Those who know of the false confession phenomenon must hope for a new trial for Lapointe and a better informed and less credulous jury.

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“Privilege” is the byword in Washington, as in Hartford, even when it comes to the news media, which should be exposing privilege at every opportunity.

A Senate committee has just approved a “shield law” for journalists — a law exempting them from having to testify in court about their confidential sources in certain circumstances and conferring the privilege exclusively on people who work for established news organizations. The ordinary citizen blogging on the Internet or otherwise attempting journalism on his own would not be covered.

Most journalists are hailing this when they should be condemning it. For journalism is not a profession; it is a constitutional right that belongs to everyone, just as no class of people should have privilege in court. The constitutional right to free speech and press are fully compatible with the constitutional obligation of every citizen, including journalists, to give relevant testimony in court.

Courts generally are sensitive to press freedom and almost all appellate courts are highly respectful of it. They seldom seek to compel a journalist’s testimony when it is not central to the issue being tried. But while journalists, like anyone else, may not approve of certain laws, they must be as subject to those laws as everyone else, and just as everyone has the right to be a journalist at any time.

Journalists do the First Amendment no favors when they proclaim that it belongs only to them. For then everyone else will have a reason not to support it.

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According to the Census Bureau the country’s median household income has declined by more than 1 percent over the last 24 years. Median income is probably the most basic measure of national government and societal performance, and it has fallen during Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

After five years of Barack Obama’s presidency, with the country essentially in a depression — welfare, food stamps, and disability rolls exploding, job market participation collapsing, big banks controlling financial policy, and big corporations escaping antitrust law — the problem is not just George W. Bush anymore. It’s everybody in government — they all have become tools of the government, financial, corporate, and welfare classes, betraying the working class.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.