Two Connecticut murder convicts who were freed last year when a state judge declared them innocent are now facing the possibility of returning to prison, after the state Supreme Court ruled Friday that the judge was wrong to overturn their convictions.
Justices in a unanimous decision ordered a new appeal trial for George Gould and Ronald Taylor, who had served more than 16 years in prison for a 1993 New Haven killing. The two were freed on April 1, 2010, after Rockville Superior Court Judge Stanley Fuger ruled they were victims of "manifest injustice" and declared them "actually innocent" after a key prosecution witness recanted her testimony at trial.
The Supreme Court, however, said Fuger's ruling was wrong because Gould and Taylor didn't prove their innocence. Justices ordered a new trial for the two men, related to their habeas corpus appeals that Fuger decided in their favor.
"The trial court improperly failed to recognize that ... actual innocence requires affirmative evidence that the petitioners did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted, not simply the discrediting of evidence on which the conviction rested," Justice Dennis G. Eveleigh wrote in the decision, citing state law and legal precedent.
Gould and Taylor were sentenced to 80 years in prison for the shooting death of Eugenio Deleon Vega at his New Haven grocery shop.
Prosecutors wouldn't say Friday whether they will seek to have Gould and Taylor returned to prison. After Fuger's decision, both men were released on $100,000 non-surety bonds pending further appeals, meaning they didn't have to put up any cash or collateral. Taylor's lawyer recently told court officials that Taylor has terminal colon cancer.
Prosecutor Michael O'Hare said the state will be filing motions to address Gould and Taylor's custody, after the Supreme Court's ruling becomes official on July 19. He wouldn't say what those motions will request.
"I think that the Supreme Court correctly decided the main issue in the case and that is, what is the standard for actual innocence?" O'Hare said.
Taylor's lawyer, Peter Tsimibidaros, disagreed with the Supreme Court's decision, saying there was plenty of evidence of Taylor and Gould's innocence presented during the 16 days of their habeas corpus trial last year. He said he discussed the ruling with Taylor on Friday, and they are considering their legal options. Those options include going ahead with the new trial, appealing to federal court or asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling.
Tsimbidaros called Friday's ruling "cruel" and said Taylor was upset with it.
"It's cruel because Ron Taylor is innocent, and he has Stage 4 colon cancer," he said. "I had to break the bad news (about the ruling) to Ron Taylor. It was a very emotional meeting. He was quite distraught, and we are going to continue the fight for justice.
"We maintain that the real killer is still out there walking the streets of New Haven," Tsimbidaros said. "There is not one piece of evidence that connects these two gentlemen to the crime."
Gould's attorney, Joseph Visone, said midday Friday that he would comment later in the day, but he didn't return messages Friday afternoon.
The main issue in the case was the testimony of the prosecution's main witness, Doreen Stiles, at the original trial. Stiles testified that she saw Gould enter Deleon's store and heard him arguing with Deleon about opening his safe, then heard a gunshot and saw Gould and Taylor leaving the store. A jury convicted Gould and Taylor in 1995.
But Stiles testified before Fuger in 2009 that she lied during the trial and wasn't at the murder scene. She said that she was "dopesick" when police interrogated her after the killing and that a detective told her he would help her buy heroin if she told authorities what happened. Stiles said she identified Taylor, now in his early 50s, and Gould, in his late 40s, in photos as the men in Deleon's shop and afterward two detectives gave her $60 and drove her to a street where she bought heroin.
Police denied Stiles' allegations.
Visone had argued that the state's theory that Gould and Taylor killed Deleon in a robbery made no sense. He said Deleon was found with $1,800 stuffed in his pockets and there was $100 in the cash register, money that should have been taken if the motive was robbery. Both Visone and Tsimbidaros claimed Deleon's son was the killer, an allegation O'Hare has called "vague speculation."
Justice Richard Palmer wrote in a concurring opinion that Gould and Taylor's cases were highly unusual, and the Supreme Court shouldn't apply state law so strictly that it makes it impossible for defendants to seek release when they have negated all evidence of their guilt but can't prove their innocence.
"Fundamental fairness dictates that a petitioner who is simply unlucky enough to have been alone or with his co-defendant when the crime was committed and to have been implicated in a crime for which the perpetrator left no physical evidence should have some means available to demonstrate affirmatively his or her innocence short of proving the identity of the actual perpetrator," Palmer wrote.
Palmer said he sees no reason why Taylor and Gould couldn't prove their innocence by simply saying they deny the allegations, in addition to the witness recantation.