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Disabled Connecticut man ordered freed after 26 years in prison

HARTFORD, Conn. (Reuters) - A judge on Friday ordered the release of a 69-year-old mentally disabled Connecticut man who has been imprisoned for a quarter century for rape and murder based on a contested confession but was found last month to hav...

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Richard Lapointe, exits the courthouse after Lapointe was released from jail in Hartford, Connecticut April 10, 2015. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

HARTFORD, Conn. (Reuters) - A judge on Friday ordered the release of a 69-year-old mentally disabled Connecticut man who has been imprisoned for a quarter century for rape and murder based on a contested confession but was found last month to have been deprived of a fair trial.

Looking extremely frail, Richard Lapointe appeared in Superior Court in Hartford where Judge Joan Alexander ordered him freed on $25,000 cash bail. The crowded courtroom erupted in jubilant cheers by supporters who have campaigned for decades for Lapointe's release.

Lapointe confessed to raping and killing his wife's elderly grandmother in 1989 and was sentenced in 1992 to life in prison without parole.

The state Supreme Court last month ruled that his admission was extracted under duress and that he was deprived of a fair trial because prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that supported his alibi.

The court ruled that Lapointe be released or given a new trial. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek another trial for Lapointe. A hearing was set for May 15.

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Lapointe, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, shackles and thick glasses, was hunched over and visibly shaking as he sipped from a cup of water in court.

His supporters and attorneys say Lapointe could not have committed the crime due to his disabilities. He suffers from Dandy-Walker syndrome, which affects brain development and causes intellectual and physical impairments.

They say the former dishwasher, who confessed after nearly 10 hours of police interrogation, was railroaded under pressure and that he barely understood what was happening to him.

Lapointe's release was being processed by court officials, and he was expected to be freed from custody in the early afternoon on Friday.

The judge rejected a request by prosecutors that Lapointe wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. Defense attorneys say their client is barely able to walk and does not present a flight risk.

"We are ecstatic that after all these years Richard is finally being freed. This was a travesty of justice from the start," said Kate Germond, director of Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit organization that works to vindicate people who have been wrongfully convicted.

"He will finally get to sleep in a real bed and breathe some fresh air today for the first time since his unjust incarceration," she said.

The victim, 88-year-old Bernice Martin, was found raped and stabbed in a burning apartment in Manchester, Connecticut.

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By Richard Weizel

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