By Gregory B. Hladky
4:25 PM EDT, April 23, 2013
Nearly two decades have passed since Eugenio Deleone Vega was murdered in his New Haven bodega, yet restless questions about that seemingly commonplace crime continue to haunt Connecticut's criminal justice system.
Was there police misconduct? If the motive was robbery, why was $1,800 in Vega's pocket untouched? Could a state judge have been right that a "manifest injustice" was done in the first trial? Did prosecutors overlook evidence suggesting Vega's own son was the true killer? Key witnesses have recanted their testimony, but which version should be believed?
Two men, Ronald Taylor and George Gould, were convicted of the crime in 1995. They were briefly freed in 2010. Taylor has died. Gould was sent back to prison and remains there while a new set of lawyers prepares yet another appeal.
And next month, a private investigator named Gerald O'Donnell faces a court hearing on charges of witness tampering and bribery in his effort to prove Gould and Taylor innocent. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. How his case turns out could determine whether Gould spends the rest of his life behind bars.
If O'Donnell were to be convicted, says David R. Cameron, "It would be a huge blow" to Gould's chances of ever getting a new trial.
Cameron is a political science professor at Yale University and a member of the state's Eyewitness Identification Task Force. He became interested in the attempts of Gould and Taylor to overturn their convictions in part because the original trial hinged on a single eyewitness who later changed her testimony, and then changed it back again. Cameron believes the convictions of the two men should have been overturned long ago. (Cameron has written about the case for this paper in the past.)
"This is a case, probably more than any other I've followed… that rested entirely on an eyewitness identification," says Cameron. It was that single witness that O'Donnell is accused of trying to influence.
O'Donnell, 68, is a former Cheshire cop, and a former investigator for the same New Haven state's attorney's office that has been prosecuting the Vega murder case from the beginning.
"He worked for [New Haven State's Attorney Michael] Dearington," says Cameron. "Dearington thought he was a great guy."
When he appears in court on May 10 for a pretrial hearing, O'Donnell will be represented by a Connecticut lawyer known for taking on controversial cases.
Norman Pattis was the lawyer for the so-called "Soccer Mom Madam," Anna Gristina, who last September pleaded guilty to running a high-class Manhattan bordello. He's defended Connecticut cops in East Haven and Meriden accused of racial bias and police brutality.
The case against O'Donnell alleges he pressured and bribed a former prostitute and drug addict named Doreen Stiles to change her testimony against Gould and Taylor.
The two men were charged with murder shortly after Vega was found, his hands tied with electrical cord and a bullet in his head, lying in his bodega's walk-in refrigerator.
Taylor and Gould admitted they'd been out on the streets the night of the killing, pretending to be drug dealers and stealing money from would-be buyers. But they consistently denied having anything to do with the murder. There was no physical evidence against them: no gun, no fingerprints, no DNA evidence.
Stiles was the key witness in the original trial that sent the two men to prison for 80 years. It was her statements that put Taylor and Gould at the bodega at the time of the murder. She later changed her testimony, claiming New Haven cops pressured her to lie.
Lawyers for Gould and Taylor filed a legal action to overturn the conviction. In 2009 and 2010, state Superior Court Judge Stanley T. Fuger heard 16 days of testimony that included evidence that Vega's son, Carlos DeLeon, a convicted sex offender, had plenty of motive and opportunity to have killed his father, and may have owned the right caliber gun.
Fuger declared the conviction of Gould and Taylor had been a "manifest injustice." He ordered both men released from the prison where they'd spent nearly 17 years.
The prosecution appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Gould and Taylor hadn't done enough to prove themselves innocent. In August 2011, Gould was ordered back to prison. (Taylor was dying of colon cancer and was allowed to remain with his family. He died that October.) Another round of hearings was ordered for 2012.
Before those were concluded, O'Donnell was charged with of witness tampering and one count of bribery. Stiles was quoted by the state's investigators as saying she changed her original testimony because of O'Donnell's harassment and gifts of a television (the purchase was traced back to O'Donnell's credit card), a radio/CD player, cash and promises of more money.
According to the arrest warrant, Stiles admitted some of her testimony at the original trial was false but "The important stuff was true."
Cameron says Stiles "recanted her recantation" when two state inspectors indicated she could be charged with perjury.
In September of last year, Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza decided that Stiles had been telling the truth in her original testimony against the two men. He rejected Fuger's "manifest injustice" finding, said Gould had failed to prove he was "actually innocent," and dismissed his plea for a new trial.
Damon Kirschbaum is a Hartford attorney who was just assigned Gould's appeals case by the public defender's office. He declined last week to discuss anything to do with the charges against O'Donnell, and is hesitant to talk about Gould's chances to eventually have his conviction overturned.
"We need to review an enormous amount of material," he explains. "We probably won't be able to file a brief until the end of the summer."
So Gould is waiting for another appeal to be filed, while O'Donnell waits for his own trial.
Neither Tolland State's Attorney Matthew Gedansky, who is handling the O'Donnell prosecution, nor O'Donnell's attorney would comment on the upcoming hearing.
Cameron says the state's accusations involving O'Donnell depend entirely on Stiles, just as it was her original testimony that put Gould and Taylor in prison. He points out that the problem for the prosecution and the defense in both cases is the same:
"She's completely unreliable as a witness," Cameron warns. "This is a very simple case that rests on a completely unreliable witness."
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