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Defending the Mentally Disabled

Perske, his wife Martha, and dog Wolfie. Perske has spent much of his life showing how the criminal justice system is unfair to people with mental retardation.
Susan Stone, NPR /
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Perske, his wife Martha, and dog Wolfie. Perske has spent much of his life showing how the criminal justice system is unfair to people with mental retardation.

Every Saturday, Bob Perske wakes up before dawn and, in his 12-year-old Honda, drives across Connecticut to see Richard Lapointe, a man with brain damage who is serving a life sentence in prison. Perske, an advocate for people with mental retardation, has quietly devoted his life to showing how the criminal justice system is unfair to those with mental disabilities. He says some people, like Lapointe, were convicted of crimes they didn't commit.

Perske is a one-man clearinghouse on people with mental disabilities with legal problems. He frequently gets calls about people in trouble, and he directs them to lawyers who've worked with similiar cases or to advocates who can rally support.

Perske heard about Lapointe after publishing Unequal Justice, a 1991 book about mental retardation in prison.

Lapointe was convicted of raping and killing his wife's 88-year-old grandmother, and is serving a life sentence for the crime.

Perske says Lapointe is innocent. Lapointe was born with Dandy Walker Syndrome, a rare condition that swells the brain and causes brain damage. Perske says that the traits of a person with a mental disability -- such as a strong desire to be helpful in order to hide limitations -- led Lapointe to confess.

When police told Lapointe they had fingerprints, DNA and eyewitnesses that proved he was the killer, he agreed to sign three confessions. One said, in part: "If the evidence shows I was there and that I killed her, then I killed her, but I don't remember being there."

But there was no evidence. It was a ruse.

Perkse knows that in order to free Lapointe, he needs skilled legal work and extraordinary DNA evidence. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has a profile of Perske, and his attempt to free Lapointe.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.