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Imagine Catherine Roraback's emotions

It is said that the worst nightmare for a defense attorney is to know that your client is absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing.

You usually represent people who did the crime or were otherwise involved. Now it is up to you to save the accused from years in prison or even a seat on death row. But if he has signed a false confession telling how he carried out the worst kind of crime, the murder of his own mother, the weight of responsibility can be unbearable.

I can only imagine Catherine Roraback’s emotions in the fall of 1973 when she met Peter Reilly for the first time and sensed that he was incapable of having committed one of the most vicious killings in Connecticut history.

The teenager had sought her help. His supporters had told her that something was terribly wrong about the picture of the bright, mild-mannered senior at the regional high school destroying the only parent he had ever known. And doing so just minutes after quietly attending a youth center meeting in Canaan’s Methodist Church.

Yet someone, or perhaps more than one home invader, had repeatedly stabbed, stomped, sexually violated and nearly beheaded Barbara Gibbons in Falls Village on the night of Sept. 28, 1973.

It was not in Catherine Roraback’s character to find reasons, as one of the state’s busiest attorneys, to avoid taking on the defense of a penniless "confessed killer." She knew doing so would be financially draining and time consuming. She knew that in courtrooms, a confession, "the queen of evidence," trumped the absence of evidence almost every time.

She was a fighter. She was known for breaking down barriers against females in the legal profession and defending proponents of unpopular causes. As a newspaper profile said, "Many moons ago, she fell in love with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."

Her father had died just before the Reilly case came along. Her only brother was dying of cancer in Holland as she battled for Peter in his 1974 trial. Heartbreaking is too mild a word to suggest her reaction to the jury’s guilty verdict.

All too often in our "broken system," innocence is irrelevant. Winning is everything. In those days, a third of a century ago, when the nation still pretended that unjust convictions were rare, Catherine had virtually no weapons to fight a confession even though an eight-hour interrogation audiotape screamed its falsity.

There were no confession experts to call on, no great body of cases showing how police methods of falsehoods, trickery and threats, often amounting to psychological torture, can compel a blameless person to declare himself guilty.

Catherine lost to a prosecutor who invented a motive for the crime; who lied about the "overwhelming" evidence; who relied on deceitful testimony by key state witnesses; and who pinpointed the time Peter attacked his mother even as he concealed a document showing that the boy was driving his car 5 miles away at that very time.

The injustice of it all, of course, was so blatant that Peter was fully exonerated within three years. The guilty verdict was overturned in a hearing on new evidence. A one-man grand jury inquiry condemned the state’s misconduct. But the state police, in their greatest-ever embarrassment, never could bring themselves to solve the crime with known suspects.

Catherine Roraback, who died this week, vindicated in her certainty about her client’s actual innocence, had the satisfaction of seeing Peter Reilly’s ordeal fixed in the nation’s legal annals as a classic "wrong man" case. She had lived her good life long enough to witness the DNA revolution and the creation of innocence projects all across the land. She was thrilled by the sight of young men and women in the law falling in love with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Donald S. Connery


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