A controversial case that imprisoned three men including a former Woonsocket Rhode Island police detective may see a new outcome more than thirty years after the crime. A lengthy motion filed in Superior Court by lawyers for Raymond Tempest Jr., 61, seeks to have his conviction of the 1982 murder of Doreen Picard vacated after DNA testing of a hair found in the victim’s hand proved not to be from Tempest.
For those who have studied wrongful convictions, reading the 76-page motion brings a troubling sense of déjà vu. If the motion is granted, it will be an acknowledgement of a miscarriage of justice not as uncommon as most Americans once believed. The National Registry of Exonerations is reporting 1,341 known exonerations since 1989, of which 597, nearly 45 percent, were exonerations in murder cases.
The Tempest case may also exemplify current trends noted by the National Registry, namely, that while the number of wrongful convictions resulting in exonerations due to DNA testing has been declining in recent years, those that do occur are increasingly murder convictions from decades ago.
The Registry’s February 2014 report (here, page 14) explains:
“The average time to a DNA exoneration has increased from 6 years in 1993 to 19 years in 2013. … This should be no surprise. Nowadays, 25 years after the first DNA exonerations, if there is probative DNA in a major felony prosecution it is generally tested before trial. This has become increasingly true over the past 20 years. As a result, DNA exonerations are increasingly dominated by defendants who were convicted 20 to 30 years ago or longer. Innocent murder defendants are much more likely to be in prison 25 to 30 years after conviction than innocent rape defendants, and they and their supporters are more likely to continue to press for their release.”
Tempest was convicted and sentenced to 85 years in prison in 1992, ten years after the horrific murder of Picard and assault of Susan Laferte in the basement laundry room of their apartment building. Leferte’s injuries prevented any memory of the perpetrator.
In 2004, Tempest petitioned for DNA testing and the court granted the testing, which was performed on multiple pieces of evidence from 2005 to 2013. Mitochondrial DNA testing—not yet introduced in 1992 at the time of the trial—was utilized on the hair. None of the evidence tested linked to Tempest.
The state’s theory that three persons acted together in the murder and assault was based on a key witness whose statements were brought into question after post-conviction investigations by Tempest’s defense team revealed inaccuracies. Laferte’s three-year-old daughter Nicole told authorities immediately after the crime that she saw “a man” come into the house and go into the basement with her mother. She also saw the man, wearing a white hat, leave the house. And despite the state’s three-person theory, only Tempest was charged and convicted of murder.
In 1993 Tempest’s brother, former Woonsocket police detective Gordon Tempest, was convicted of seven counts of perjury related to his alleged cover-up of his brother’s crime. He was sentenced to twenty years, with thirteen suspended, and thirteen years of probation.
One of Raymond Tempest’s alleged accomplices, his brother-in-law Robert Montiero, was convicted of four counts of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison, according to Katie Mulvaney, writing for the Providence Journal (here).
The motion alleges problems with the case that are consistent with common contributors to wrongful convictions. The National Registry of Exonerations’ database reveals that perjury/false accusation is the most frequent contributor to wrongful convictions leading to exoneration in murder cases. This contributor often works with others alleged in the Tempest case, including official misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel.
The motion notes, “No eyewitness or physical evidence tied Tempest to the crime.” The state’s case relied on the testimony of a key witness who said that Tempest had confessed to him and other witnesses who testified similarly or supported details of the crime theory. Characterized in the motion as “drug addicts and criminals” the witnesses “had only recently claimed that Tempest had confessed” some nine years after the crime.
According to the motion:
• The key witness’s contention that Tempest confessed to him very soon after the crime could not have occurred at the farm the witness frequently referenced, because he did not have access to the property until after at least some of the alleged incriminating conversations.
• Police withheld knowledge that Tempest’s alleged accomplice could not have been in the maroon car witnesses described, because he acquired his maroon car a year after the crime.
• Daniel Shaw, an early suspected accomplice of Tempest, recanted his statements against Tempest and claimed that police pressured him to implicate Tempest.
Martin Yant, a private investigator, author, and contributing editor of The Wrongful Convictions Blog has worked on dozens of wrongful conviction cases and was involved in this one off and on over the past fourteen years. He said that the filing of the motion was “satisfying,” adding, “This motion has been a long time coming.”
Tempest’s legal team includes Betty Anne Waters, whose late brother Kenneth served twenty years in prison after a wrongful conviction of murder. The case was the subject of the movie, Conviction. Additionally, Tempest’s attorneys include Michael Kendall, Mather R. Turnell, Katherine Dyson, and Lauren E. Jones. The New England Innocence Project got involved about ten years ago, and Tempest’s sister has been an active advocate.
The citizens of Rhode Island should be disturbed by this troubling case and the questions that have followed the verdict for another twenty years. The appeals process went to the state Supreme Court (the high court upheld Tempest’s conviction in 1995), and taxpayers have also underwritten the incarceration of three men convicted on a crime theory that appears to be flawed after further investigation and testing.
A relevant question in cases such as this is whether or not it would have gone to a grand jury with the DNA testing results known today. The lack of any physical evidence linking to Tempest while key physical evidence excludes him, alleged official misconduct, and reliance on questionable testimony, are factors that the Court must consider to determine if this verdict should be vacated.
Was this a wrongful conviction? At the very least, the citizens of Rhode Island should consider it a bungled one, because, very unfortunately, after three decades and much expense, they cannot be confident or at all certain about who savagely beat Susan Laferte and murdered Doreen Picard.