"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

Judge Compounds Murder Case Injustice

On April 1, 2010, Judge Stanley T. Fuger Jr. threw out the convictions of George Gould and Ronald Taylor for the murder of Eugenio Vega in his New Haven bodega in 1993. Outraged by the "manifest injustice" that had occurred, Fuger also threw out the arrest warrants and finding of probable cause and released the men. For Gould, it must now seem like the cruelest April Fool's joke.

Gould and Taylor were convicted and sentenced to 80 years solely based on testimony by Doreen Stiles, a heroin-addicted prostitute who claimed she was near the store, saw Gould enter it, heard a gunshot and saw both men leave. In 2009 — rehabilitated — she recanted. She said she wasn't at the scene and made up the story during a lengthy police interrogation.

The state appealed Fuger's decision. The Supreme Court ruled the recantation was not convincing evidence the men were innocent. It ordered a new habeas trial. In August 2011, after 16 months of freedom, Gould was returned to prison. Taylor, suffering from cancer, was allowed to remain at home. He died in October.

Last Wednesday, Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza rejected Gould's petition for a new trial, concluding he hadn't proved his innocence. For good measure, and despite not having seen or heard Stiles' recantation, he said her original testimony was truthful and the recantation was not.

Gould, however, did present evidence he and Taylor didn't murder Vega. They were convicted of robbing the store. Yet the police found cash neatly arranged in the unlocked cash register and a wad of $1,800 in Vega's pocket. There was no evidence, aside from Stiles' fabricated identification, that they entered the store or took anything.

The habeas trial established that Vega's son, Carlos DeLeon, made all the store's bank deposits. He wrote a number of checks against the account without his father's knowledge, causing a $50,000 check Vega wrote for the purchase of a property to bounce. The bank told Vega it wouldn't reimburse him unless he authorized it to prosecute DeLeon.

The first police officer at the murder scene saw a large, ledger-sized checkbook near an open safe. DeLeon appeared soon afterward. Before the police photographed the scene, DeLeon and the checkbook disappeared. After the murder, he attempted to withdraw funds from the account.

Vega's wrists were tied with an electrical extension cord. There was DNA on the cord. But it didn't come from Gould or Taylor. Sferrazza suggested they could have worn gloves. But he didn't mention that the cord was tied with an unusually intricate knot that would've been difficult to tie with gloves on. And he didn't mention that the DNA came from a woman.

Pam Youmans, a prostitute with whom Vega had frequent sexual encounters, was at the store when Vega opened it. She went inside for 15 to 20 minutes. In 2009, Gerald O'Donnell, a former state inspector and private investigator, recorded two conversations with Youmans. The Supreme Court noted that, although the first was consistent with Youmans' original testimony that Vega was alive when she left the store, the second "provided some support" for the theory that she was still in the store when DeLeon came in and shot his father.

During the second conversation, in which she was distraught, crying and fearful that DeLeon would harm her, Youmans acknowledged she was with Vega when DeLeon shot him and that she touched the cord. Sferrazza noted the woman in the second conversation "obliquely acknowledged being a witness to the victim's murder by his son." But he concluded, bizarrely, that, as Youmans claimed, it was not her voice on the tape.

Vega was shot in the head with a .380 handgun. DeLeon once owned an AMT .380. The state found the gun and determined it wasn't the gun that fired the bullet that killed Vega. A firearms expert testified that in all likelihood the bullet came from a Colt .380. The murder weapon was never found. But DeLeon did possess a Colt .380 magazine.

Gould will appeal. But in the meantime, the state should, with the assistance of the Innocence Project, reopen the investigation. To do otherwise would be to perpetuate what Judge Fuger rightly called a "manifest injustice."