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Gould’s Final Fate Awaits
by David R. Cameron | Jun 29, 2012 1:49 pm
Posted to: Legal Writes
(Opinion) George Gould’s second habeas trial concluded Tuesday. The question now before state Superior Court Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza is whether Gould presented affirmative evidence and proof of his innocence.
Gould and Ronald Taylor, who died in October, were convicted in 1995 and sentenced to 80 years for the murder of Eugenio Vega in his bodega, Casa Green, at 330 Grand Ave. in New Haven sometime around 5:30 a.m. on July 4, 1993. Since then they have been the subject of a series of legal proceedings that saw them released from jail and, in the case of Gould, returned, with yet another trial now determining his fate for good.
Eugenia Vega was shot with a .380 handgun, probably a Colt, in the walk-in refrigerator at the back of the store. He was found with his wrists tied with an extension cord.
The men were in the vicinity of the bodega at the time, but there were no fingerprints or DNA or other evidence linking them to the crime. There was only the testimony of Doreen Stiles, a drug-addicted prostitute. As prosecutor James G. Clark told the jury, “This case rises and falls on the testimony of Doreen Stiles. If you believe her, you’ll convict. If you think she’s lying, you’ll acquit.”
Stiles said that as she walked toward the store she saw a large black man cross the street heading toward the store. Hiding in an alleyway next to it, she heard voices arguing, a demand to open the safe, screams in Spanish, and a gunshot, and saw two men leave the store. Later, she identified photos of Gould and Taylor as the two men she saw.
Fourteen years later, at Gould and Taylor’s 2009 habeas trial, Stiles recanted. She said she wasn’t in the vicinity of the store that morning and made up the whole story during a six-hour interrogation in which she was threatened with being charged with prostitution, was “dope sick,” was told the police would help her buy heroin if she told them what happened, and was influenced by the police in selecting photos of Gould and Taylor as the men she saw.
Judge Stanley T. Fuger, Jr., noting that her trial testimony was “the sole piece of evidence, the only thread” linking the men to the crime, threw out their convictions. Indeed, so outraged was he by the “manifest injustice” that had been perpetrated that he threw out the arrest warrants as well and ordered their immediate release. Gould and Taylor were freed from jail.
But last July, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed Fuger’s decision. It said he failed to recognize that, in order to prevail on a claim of actual innocence, habeas petitioners, who do not enjoy the presumption of innocence, must, following the court’s 1997 decision in Miller v. Commissioner of Correction, present affirmative evidence and proof of their innocence, something it said the men had not done. It remanded the cases for a new habeas trial.
A New Wrinkle
So a new trial took place. It began in March. It was rocked in mid-April by a motion by Gould’s attorney, Joseph Visone, to withdraw from the case because Taylor’s attorney, Peter Tsimbidaros, who had joined him in the case, and Gerald O’Donnell, their investigator, had withheld information from him.
After a closed-door hearing, Tsimbidaros withdrew from the case. A week later, O’Donnell was charged with one count of bribing a witness and two counts of tampering with a witness – Stiles – prior to the 2009 habeas trial.
The dispute between the lawyers and the charges against O’Donnell resulted from statements Stiles made on July 6, 2011, to Inspectors Edwin Rodriguez and Stephen Coppola, both former New Haven police officers, and, later that day, in a videotaped interview with two New Haven officers.
Rodriguez and Coppola met with Stiles to confirm her address and inform her that she would be subpoenaed to testify in the new habeas trial. Stiles told them her original trial testimony had been truthful and her testimony at the 2009 hearing had not been truthful.
She was interviewed later that day by New Haven police detectives Sgt. Tony Reyes and Matthew Merced. In the videotaped interview, played in court, Stiles said O’Donnell visited her weekly for three years prior to the habeas trial, brought pizza, bought her a TV and a stereo, gave her cash, and convinced her to change the story she had told in her original testimony. At one point in the interview, she told Reyes her original testimony was the truth.
But the truth seems to have been elusive for Stiles; at another point, when asked if her testimony at the initial trial was truthful, she said, “Most of it was…Some of it wasn’t.” When asked what part wasn’t true, she said, “I can’t really remember but I know I would throw things in there that weren’t true.” And when asked if what she was saying in the interview was the truth, she replied, “Most of it, yeah.”
In May, Inspector John Bannon served Stiles with a subpoena for the habeas trial. He testified that when he asked her if she was going to tell the truth she said yes. When he asked which version of the truth, she said her original trial testimony.
But shortly before she was scheduled to testify, Stiles reverted to her 2009 version of the truth. On June 4, the day before she was to testify, she told her lawyer she wasn’t at the store that morning and was pressured by the police. The next day, on the way up to the Rockville courthouse, she told investigator Dan Markle she wasn’t at the scene and was going to tell the truth that she wasn’t there. She said she told Bannon she wasn’t there.
Her lawyer advised her not to testify, since whatever she said would subject her to a charge of perjury. (In 2010, the state eliminated the statute of limitations for perjury.) When asked her age, she took the Fifth and her lawyer indicated she would do so for all questions put to her by Visone.
However, on June 19, Visone called Markle to the stand and got Stiles’ latest version of the truth into the record.
The New Version
Stiles obviously was and remains a thoroughly unreliable witness. But whether she was or was not at the scene that morning – and the best guess, based on her 2009 testimony and her most recent comments, is she wasn’t – is in one sense irrelevant: The fact remains that Gould had to provide affirmative evidence or proof of his innocence.
During the 2009 habeas trial, Gould and Taylor presented forensic and circumstantial evidence that pointed to some killer other than themselves. DNA was found on the extension cord with which Vega’s wrists were bound. The DNA came from a woman. A recording of a conversation between O’Donnell and Pam Youmans, who had been in the store with Vega that morning, suggested the identity of the killer, as did the record of bank deposits and withdrawals for the bodega.
But that was not enough for the Supreme Court; it demanded affirmative evidence or proof of actual innocence. What was Gould to do? Was he supposed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt who killed Vega? He’s not, after all the state’s cold case unit.
Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer had a suggestion: In his concurring opinion to last July’s decision, he said that, in light of the extraordinary circumstances in the case, Gould and Taylor could present affirmative evidence of their innocence by testifying that they didn’t commit the crime.
And so, on June 19, the concluding day of the trial, Gould took the stand. He provided a detailed account of his movements in the hours before, during, and after the crime. He acknowledged that he was in the vicinity, that he was out and about that evening and early morning, and that he committed several street robberies, used some drugs, and sold some bogus drugs. But he denied – emphatically – that he or Taylor killed Vega.
Did his testimony, alongside all the other evidence presented at the trial, provide the affirmative proof of innocence a habeas petitioner must present to prevail in a claim of actual innocence? That’s the question Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza must now answer.
David R. Cameron of New Haven resident is a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force.
Post a Comment
Judge Fuger was right to throw out this case in 2009 because the 1995 jury heard “evidence” that was fabricated by the police from a “witness” who was not there. This is not what happened in the Miller case. Larry Miller was mistakenly identified as guilty, and was later freed because the actual perpetrator confessed. The CT Supreme Court should not have used this “actual innocence” case as the precedent for Gould & Taylor. Defendants who were convicted in an unfair trial, in which police intentionally supplied false information to the jury, prosecutors and judge, should not have to prove their innocence. At most Gould and Taylor could be required to have a new criminal trial, at which the presumption of innocence would apply, as in the original trial. As for Doreen Stiles’ switching back and forth during the past year about which testimony of hers was true or false, Judge Sferrazza will have to decide if anything she ever said is trustworthy.
Should he decide to eliminate all her testimony as untrustworthy, then wouldn’t he have to throw out the whole case, since her testimony was the only evidence against them? One thing I do know, because I was helping Investigator O’Donnell locate Doreen Stiles in Dec. 2006 and then heard from him shortly after he found her, is that Stiles told him about her false fabricated testimony the very day he first talked to her. He did not spend three years or even three weeks trying to convince her of anything. Prosecutors Dearington and Clark knew about the recantation less than a week after Investigator O’Donnell met Stiles. What does that tell you about the conduct of the current prosecutors? If Samuel Sferrazza is a smart and fair judge, he will rule that George Gould did not murder Eugenio Vega.