The Conviction Integrity Unit was supposed to investigate the New Haven murder case
George Gould and Ronald Taylor were convicted of murder and robbery in 1995 and sentenced to 80 years in prison for the murder of Eugenio Vega in his bodega on Grand Avenue in New Haven on the early morning of July 4, 1993. Judges overturned after the state’s top witness retracted her earlier testimony that she had seen men who looked like her walk into the bodega that morning.
But in 2011, the state Supreme Court overturned the judge on the grounds that the men had failed to provide clear and convincing evidence of their innocence and ordered a new habeas trial. Taylor, terminally ill, was allowed to stay at home and died that same year. Gould returned to prison to await the new habeas trial.
In 2012, in the new habeas trial, the judge denied Gould’s request for a new criminal case. In May, Judge Gerald Harmon, with the approval of the prosecution, approved a motion to reduce his sentence and was released from prison. But his release did not erase the conviction, and his lawyers moved another habeas trial. Originally planned for next March, it was recently postponed to December 2024. It is unclear whether the delay is due to the backlog in habeas cases or the judiciary’s lack of interest in handling the case at this point in time. But one thing is clear: there are good reasons to believe that Gould and Taylor were wrongly convicted.
Vega was shot dead sometime around 5:30 a.m. in the walk-in refrigerator in the back of his shop. Gould and Taylor were nearby that morning, but there was no fingerprint, DNA, or other forensic evidence linking them to the crime. There was only one testimony from Doreen Stiles, a drug addict prostitute. She testified that as she walked down Grand Avenue, she saw a tall black man cross the street, walking toward the store. As she hid in an alley next to it, she heard voices arguing, the request to open the safe, screams in Spanish and a shot, and saw two men leave. She later identified photos of Gould and Taylor as the men she saw. Mary Boyd, another drug addict prostitute, testified that she saw movement in the store and two “colored people” in it. She also testified that she saw a white woman with a limp nearby. Stiles is white and limped.
In 2003, Gould and Taylor filed habeas petitions, and in 2006 Gerald O’Donnell, a former Cheshire police officer and state inspector who was investigating the case for their attorneys, selected Stiles at a Wallingford state rehabilitation facility. Stiles admitted she wasn’t at the scene and said in a taped interview that she made up the whole story. At the Gould and Taylor habeas trial in 2009, she said she was arrested for prostitution three weeks after the murder and interrogated by detectives working on the case. She said she told them she knew nothing about the murder. The detectives told her they had a testimony from a woman who said she saw a woman who resembled Stiles near the store at the time. They said that if she didn’t tell them what to hear, she would be booked into prostitution.
She was interrogated for about six hours during which time she experienced withdrawal symptoms. At one point she said a detective told her he would help her buy heroin if she told them what had happened. So she made up her story. When the detectives showed her photos of Gould and Taylor, she said they were smiling at each other and she concluded they were the men the police suspected. She said she saw them in Vegas and gave them details of what happened, trained by their suggestive questions. After six hours, the detectives gave her some money, drove her to a place in New Haven where she bought heroin, and drove her home.
In March 2010, the habeas judge overturned Gould and Taylor’s convictions, but in 2011 the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the judge and ordered a new habeas trial. Shortly thereafter, two state inspectors visited Stiles and told her she would be summoned to testify at the new trial. What they said is not known, but whatever they said, Stiles told them their original testimony was true and in a video interview she retracted their retraction. At Gould’s habeas trial in 2012, she refused to testify. Her refusal, coupled with her videotaped withdrawal of her withdrawal, resulted in the judge rejecting Gould’s motion for a new trial.
Taylor is dead and Gould has been released from prison. Still, there are good reasons to believe that they were wrongly convicted. Gould’s habeas lawsuit revealed that Vegas’ son Carlos DeLeon, who did the banking transactions for the store, wrote a series of checks against the store’s account without his father’s knowledge, resulting in Vega having a check for $ 50,000 for the store Buying a property on display across the street had bounce. The bank told Vega that they would not refund him unless he authorized them to prosecute DeLeon. The first officer to arrive at the scene saw a large checkbook near an open safe. DeLeon appeared shortly afterwards. Before the police took pictures of the crime scene, he and the checkbook disappeared.
Vegas’ wrists had been handcuffed with an electrical extension cord. DNA from an unidentified woman was on the umbilical cord. Pam Youmans, a prostitute Vega met frequently, was in the store when he opened it. She went in for 15 to 20 minutes. In 2009, O’Donnell recorded two conversations with Youmans. In the second interview, she admitted that she was with Vega when DeLeon shot him and that she was touching the line.
Vega was shot in the head with a .380 semi-automatic pistol. A state weapons expert said the bullet was likely from a Colt .380. DeLeon was convicted of harming a minor in 1998. After his conviction, he had to surrender his firearms. He handed in several pistols, none of them a Colt. But he handed in a .380 from another manufacturer and a magazine for a Colt .380.
In 2013, Stiles testified in another trial that their original revocation was true. She said she was a drug addict, went through rehab while being interviewed by the detectives, and was offered money to buy drugs. So she lied about being in the store: “They bought drugs for me, bought me clothes. It made it easy for me to get on with the lie. I couldn’t think properly. I don’t know how to put it any other way. “
The habeas process has been postponed to 2024. However, there is a more immediate path to justice for George Gould – and also after his death for Ronald Taylor. The Criminal Justice Department recently created a conviction integrity unit to review cases where there are good reasons to believe that a person has been wrongly convicted. The unit should investigate this case and determine whether George Gould and Ronald Taylor were indeed wrongly convicted.
David R. Cameron is a member of the Eyewitness Identification and Emerging Technologies Task Force.