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Connecticut journalist leaves a legacy of justice for all to follow

The Chris Powell Column

Without taking much notice, Connecticut lost a hero of journalism and justice recently: Donald S. Connery, 94, who lived in Kent for almost 60 years even as he traveled and reported from around the world for United Press International and Time magazine and its related publications.

Connery’s feats of journalism were remarkable. He was stationed in the Soviet Union in 1962 and was expelled for his radio broadcasts during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He interviewed newsmakers from John and Robert Kennedy to the Beatles to Ho Chi Minh and Nikita Khrushchev.

But Connery’s enduring legacy arises from something else — the interest he took in the case of Peter Reilly, who was charged in 1973 at age 18 with the murder of his mother at their home in Canaan. There was no evidence against the dazed young man except for a confession that was fed to him by a State Police lieutenant during eight hours of interrogation. As his shock faded Reilly recanted the confession but a jury convicted him of manslaughter anyway.

Support from his community got Reilly a new lawyer and a private detective and soon they produced evidence implicating others. Eventually the state’s attorney’s office admitted that it had withheld strong evidence in Reilly’s favor. In 1977 a Superior Court judge vacated his conviction.

Back then hardly anyone would believe that someone would confess falsely to murder. But in writing a book about the Reilly case, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” Connery discovered otherwise — that false confessions are actually a national phenomenon that has produced many wrongful convictions. People who are in shock, scared and exhausted may say whatever they think their interrogators want to hear.

Connery went on to study and agitate about such cases for 40 years, working with the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the National Center for Reason and Justice, eventually becoming an advocate for Richard Lapointe of Manchester, a small, mentally disabled man charged with murdering his wife’s grandmother in 1987. Two years after the murder Lapointe was invited to visit the Manchester police and during more than nine hours of interrogation he was fed three contradictory confessions, which he obligingly signed.

Neither a prosecutor nor a jury could see the weakness in the case and Lapointe was convicted, serving almost 26 years in prison before the state Supreme Court in 2015 granted him a new trial. A justice wrote what should have been obvious: that Lapointe’s confessions were not credible. At last the state dropped the case.

Connery’s book “Convicting the Innocent” tells Lapointe’s story and others like it.

False confessions continue. The Central Park Five case in New York City in 1989 may be the most notorious, because the falsely accused were Black and Hispanic and thus easy victims. They won $41 million in damages. But because of Connery’s work everyone in criminal justice — police, prosecutors, judges and jurors — is more obliged to look at confessions critically, especially when, as with Reilly and Lapointe, there is little physical evidence.

Long after his departure Connery still will be helping justice to be done.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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