By Gregory B. Hladky
3:45 PM EDT, October 15, 2013
In the last couple of years, Connecticut dramatically changed the way it handles eyewitness testimony. Research has raised doubts about the accuracy of eyewitnesses. Police are more cautious and prosecutors more wary of basing cases on one person's fallible memory.
Yet these reforms have apparently come far too late for George Gould and Gerry O'Donnell.
One of these men was convicted of a 1993 murder because a jury believed a single eyewitness. The other was convicted last week of bribery because a different jury didn't believe that very same witness.
"The scales of justice are not at all balanced," says David Cameron, a Yale University political scientist who was a member of a state task force that triggered those major eyewitness identification reforms.
Gould is in prison for the murder of New Haven bodega owner Eugenio Deleone Vega. He was convicted with Ron Taylor, who has since died of cancer.
The only thing linking Gould and Taylor to that killing was the testimony of a single eyewitness, a drug-addicted prostitute named Doreen Stiles. In 2006, she recanted her original testimony.
Stiles now says New Haven cops pressured her into ID'ing the two men, questioning her until she was going into withdrawal, and then giving her money for drugs when she told them what they wanted to hear.
O'Donnell is a private detective from Cheshire who was working to free Gould and Taylor. A former cop and investigator for the New Haven State's Attorney's Office, O'Donnell was convicted earlier this month of bribery and witness tampering.
The bribery charge was based on the fact that O'Donnell bought Stiles and her roommates in a nursing home a $200 TV because theirs wasn't working, and on claims he promised Stiles a share of any state settlement Gould and Taylor might get when their convictions were overturned.
State prosecutors convinced a jury that O'Donnell illegally influenced Stiles to change her story in the Vega case.
To help you keep track, here is a listing of the number of times and different ways Stiles "eyewitness" testimony has changed:
In the 1995 Gould and Taylor trial, Stiles testified she was outside the New Haven bodega, heard the gunshot that killed Vega, and saw Gould and Taylor walk out. It was only evidence linking them to the crime.
In 2006 and 2009, Stiles said her original testimony was a lie that police pressured her into telling.
In 2011, questioned by New Haven cops again and warned about possible perjury, Stiles said O'Donnell had "confused her" and convinced her to change her story. She said her original testimony was correct.
This year, at O'Donnell's trial (where she was granted immunity from any perjury prosecution), Stiles once again said her original testimony at the Gould-Taylor trial was false. You might say she recanted the recantation of her recantation. Apparently, the O'Donnell jury didn't believe her.
"The jury got it wrong," insists Cameron. In fact, he says both the juries involved in this convoluted case came up with erroneous conclusions based on trusting or distrusting an eyewitness.
"If you take all her testimony," Cameron says, "you could certainly argue she's unreliable."
Experts in Connecticut and across the nation are convinced that many people are now serving time for crimes they didn't commit because of faulty or false eyewitness testimony.
"There have to be a great number of people in prison... where the only evidence against them is an eyewitness," says David Borden, a former justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. "There have to be a significant number of them that are innocent."
Borden, who chaired Connecticut's eyewitness identification task force, points to the nearly 300 documented instances where new DNA tests have overturned convictions in serious criminal cases.
"More than 75 percent of those convictions rested, in significant part, on positive but false eyewitness identification evidence," the task force concluded in its 2012 report.
The most celebrated Connecticut case was that of James Calvin Tillman. He spent more than 18 years in prison for rape (based on eyewitness testimony) before DNA testing exonerated him. The General Assembly gave him $5 million in compensation.
"It's finally been exposed as a less valuable form of evidence," veteran New Haven defense attorney Hugh Keefe says of eyewitness statements.
Keefe says that, when he first started practicing law (in 1967), eyewitness testimony was considered second in importance only to a confession. "Today the science is pretty clear that eyewitness testimony in most cases is not very reliable," he says.
The task force Borden and Cameron served on called for changes in various police procedures when dealing with eyewitnesses. The legislature approved every one of the recommended reforms.
One of the key changes is what's called "blind" or "double blind" identifications.
In the past, an investigator on a case would often show a witness photos of many suspects all at once. Studies have shown that procedure results in lots of incorrect IDs, in part because an investigator's body language can give a witness hints of which picture to choose.
In a double-blind ID session, which is now the recommended system in Connecticut, an officer who doesn't know who the prime suspect in a case is shows a witness photos in a sequence. (Live "line-ups" in where a witness views actual people is only rarely used in this state, but reforms were also made in those procedures.)
If, as is often the case in small-town police departments, the only cop available is one who does know the identity of the prime suspect, another "blind" system can be used. In that situation, the photos of possible suspects are placed in envelopes, shuffled and handed to the witness to look at one at a time, while the investigator sits across the table where he or she can't see what photo is being looked at.
Borden says law enforcement officials who helped the task force were in favor of finding better ways to improve on eyewitness-identification accuracy.
The reason, Borden says, is that cops know that a wrong ID in a case "means the real bad guy is still out there to do more crimes."
And there's a good chance that's the case in the Vega killing. In 2010, state Superior Court Judge Stanley T. Fuger conducted new hearings on the convictions of Gould and Taylor, based largely on the fact that Stiles recanted her testimony.
There was no physical evidence that Taylor and Gould had killed Vega: no fingerprints, no DNA evidence. More than $1,800 was found in Vega's pockets despite the fact that prosecutors claimed the motive for the crime was robbery.
(Taylor and Gould admitted they were out on the streets that night in 1993, pretending to be drug dealers and ripping off people who came to buy dope. But they've always insisted they were nowhere near Vega's bodega when the killing took place.)
Gould and Taylor's defense attorneys insisted that the real killer was Vega's son, Carlos DeLeon, a convicted sex offender. They accused him of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from the bodega's bank account, and shooting his father in the head to avoid discovery.
Judge Fuger concluded that a "manifest injustice" had been done to Gould and Taylor and ordered them freed. The prosecution appealed and the state Supreme Court ordered a second retrial on the grounds the two men had failed to "prove" they were innocent.
Taylor, suffering from colon cancer, was allowed to go home to die. Gould was returned to prison. A second judge, Samuel J. Sferrazza, denied Gould's petition for a new trial, and that ruling is now being appealed.
Officials with Connecticut's Innocence Project, which works to get wrongfully convicted people freed, say the court rulings surrounding the Vega killing will make their job even tougher. Now, according to the state Supreme Court, even having a critical witness recant testimony won't be enough to overturn a conviction.
O'Donnell's lawyer says he will also appeal his client's conviction.
Cameron warns that O'Donnell's guilty verdict is "a devastating blow" to Gould's chances of ever getting out of prison. A prosecutor can now point to that trial as proof that the key eyewitness was tampered with and bribed. "It's going to be very difficult for George Gould now," Cameron says.
Cameron's voice is tinged with disgust when he talks about the attitude of state prosecutors and judges in these cases, where the only basis for finding Gould and O'Donnell guilty is a single, unreliable, flip-flopping eyewitness.
"I have reached the unavoidable conclusion... they will do whatever it takes to defend a conviction," he says. "I think the system will defend a conviction come hell or high water."
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