A recent court ruling in a convoluted 1993 New Haven murder case is making things a lot tougher for a group trying to free wrongly convicted people from Connecticut prisons.
The case concerns the killing of Eugenio Deleone Vega. The organization is the Connecticut Innocence Project. And the ruling means that folks who didn't commit the crimes they were convicted of must now offer "affirmative evidence" of their innocence to get out of jail.
Darcy McGraw, director of this state's Innocence Project, says the ruling means lawyers seeking to overturn someone's conviction are now "up against an enormously high standard."
That "affirmative evidence" hurdle now makes it tough to even get a judge to hear a claim of wrongful conviction. "The problem is getting into court at all," according to McGraw. "We still don't know exactly what they mean by 'affirmative evidence.'"
"We know there are many, many inmates who have been wrongfully convicted," McGraw says.
If you have any doubt about that, think of James Calvin Tillman, who served more than 18 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared him. In 2007, Tillman received $5 million in compensation from the state.
Or how about Miguel Roman, released after spending 20-plus years in this state's correctional system for a rape-murder he never committed. Or Kenneth Ireland, freed after 21 years when evidence showed he was wrongly convicted of murder.
Those are the big success stories for this state's Innocence Project. Future triumphs of delayed justice may be harder to come by because of the Vega case decision.
Vega's murder resulted in the quick conviction of George Gould and Ronald Taylor. Police argued the bodega owner was killed during a botched robbery and their key witness — a drug addict and prostitute named Doreen Stiles — placed Gould and Taylor at the scene.
The pair were an easy, even convenient target. They admitted to being out on the street that night pretending to be drug dealers and then ripping off would-be buyers. But they insisted they'd nothing at all to do with the Vega killing, and there was no hard evidence to connect them to the murder.
Stiles later recanted her testimony against Gould and Taylor. She claimed the cops had pressured her into lying during her original testimony. A second witness who testified against Gould and Taylor also changed her story, alleging police pressure. Vega had $1,800 in his pocket that was never touched. Lawyers for Gould and Taylor argued that Vega's son, a convicted sex offender, was a more logical suspect.
A state Superior Court judge declared that a "manifest injustice" had been done and freed the two men in 2010 after 17 years in prison. Prosecutors appealed and eventually got the state Supreme Court ruling that Gould and Taylor had failed to present "affirmative evidence" of their innocence.
The case took another bizarre twist when a private investigator named Gerald O'Donnell was arrested for witness tampering. O'Donnell was working for Gould's and Taylor's attorneys, and allegedly pressured and bribed Stiles into recanting her original testimony. O'Donnell's next pre-trial court hearing is scheduled for August 30.
Taylor, suffering from colon cancer, was allowed to die at home despite the prosecution's efforts to have him put back behind bars. Gould was returned to prison and is now appealing once again.
David Cameron, a Yale University professor and a member of the state's Eyewitness Identification Task Force, says Stiles has been proven a "completely unreliable witness." A conviction of O'Donnell on witness tampering would be a massive blow to Gould's chances of getting out of prison.
For McGraw and her colleagues, the case means that, "We now have a precedent in Connecticut that recanting witnesses are not enough" to prove a person's innocence.
It wasn't easy to get a wrongful conviction overturned in Connecticut even before that Vega case ruling, according to McGraw.
When someone is originally on trial for a crime, the burden of proof is all on the prosecutors. They have to show "beyond reasonable doubt" that this person did the crime and should do the time.
After a conviction, the roles are reversed. It's up to the convicted person to "prove" he or she is innocent.
Unlike some states, Connecticut doesn't have a specific law aimed at making it easier to challenge convictions and to offer new evidence that a person didn't commit a crime. Instead, the courts here had ruled that you must have "clear and convincing evidence" of innocence and show that "no reasonable fact finder would find the [person involved] guilty of the crime."
Now, as a result of the Vega case, there's that new, vague requirement of "affirmative evidence" of your innocence.
"That has a huge effect on our work," warns McGraw.
Those earlier Innocence Project success stories involving Tillman, Roman and Ireland were all the result of the use of DNA tests to prove those dudes were innocent of the rape-murders that sent them to prison.
Right now, the project and the Chief States Attorney's Office and the Connecticut Forensics Lab are using a $1 million grant to go back and review DNA evidence in all potentially suspect cases to see if other mistakes were made.
McGraw says those DNA cases are easy compared to the "vast majority" of convictions where there are questions about whether a verdict was correct.
There was no DNA evidence in the Vega case that could be used to prove Taylor and Gould were innocent. That sort of more ambiguous situation is what the Innocence Project is generally up against, often involving suspect witness testimony or circumstantial evidence.
Right now, the project's lawyers are reviewing more than 100 cases of possible wrongful conviction.
McGraw says she can't talk about the details of the cases under review, but did say there appear to be several "that contain serious issues of the integrity of the verdict."
McGraw says her outfit doesn't have any plans at the moment to seek new legislation in Connecticut, similar to what states like Utah have passed, that would make it easier to get bad convictions overturned.
Part of the problem, according to McGraw, is that a lot of people think the judicial system is being clogged up with frivolous claims by inmates that they've been railroaded into prison. "There's a perception, real or not, that the process is being abused," she says.
Meanwhile, locked up somewhere in the Connecticut prison system for crimes they never committed, there are almost certainly more Tillmans, Romans and Irelands who should be freed.