Hell Hath No Fury Like A Sovereign Scorned
Who killed EugenioVega DeLeon? He was shot dead in his store on Grand Avenue in New Haven on July 4, 1993. One eyewitness claimed to have seen two men leave the store right after the shooting. She testified at a trial in 1995. Then she recanted her testimony at another trial in 2009. She then pleaded the Fifth Amendment rather than testify at a third trial in 2012. Recently, after being granted immunity by the state, she once again testified that she did not know who shot Mr. DeLeon, and that she did not see the two men at all.
So why is George Gould sitting in prison? And why is the private investigator who chose to believe in Mr. Gould’s innocence in danger of joining Mr. Gould behind bars?
Doreen Stiles was a drug-addicted prostitute living at wit’s end in 1993. She was out early in Fair Haven the morning Mr. DeLeon died, doing whatever it took to get by just after 5 a.m. Four weeks after Mr. DeLeon was shot to death in the back of La Casa Green, his hands tied together, a single bullet doing death’s work, the police picked her up on prostitution charges. She was held for hours, becoming, she recently testified this year, drug sick. Officers offered her a chance to score some narcotics if she’d cooperate. She told the police she saw two black men leaving the store after hearing shouting and a single shot. A few days later, she had identified both Ron Taylor and Mr. Gould as the shooters.
In 1995, Gould and Taylor went to trial. They were convicted and sentenced to decades behind bars.
Their conviction rested on the slenderest of reeds, however, the testimony of a single eyewitness, an eyewitness with issues aplenty of her own, issues that led new lawyers and their investigator to take a closer look at the case.
Enter Gerald O’Donnell, a former Cheshire cop, and a former investigator for the New Haven State’s Attorney’s office. O’Donnell knew a lot about this case, having worked with prosecutors on the investigation of it. But now he’d crossed over to the dark side, working – gasp! – for criminal defense lawyers.
Mr. O’Donnell tracked Ms. Stiles down. In December of 2006, Ms. Stiles told O’Donnell in a tape-recorded statement that her 1995 testimony was false. She recanted, and agreed to testify in a new trial, a habeas (hay-bee-us) corpus proceeding.
A person accused of a crime has a right to a trial before a jury of his peers. At that trial, a jury considers the evidence presented to it, and votes, guilty or not-guilty. If all jurors cannot agree, a mistrial is declared, and the state must decide whether to try the case all over again.
If the defendant loses at a jury trial, the law permits him a direct appeal. A panel of judges, not jurors, reviews only the record assembled at trial – the testimony, exhibits admitted as evidence or otherwise submitted to the court, the pleadings filed by the lawyers, and the comments of all as captured by the court reporter, to determine if the defendant received a fair trial. Appeals are what lawyers call “record-driven.” You can’t bring up new facts, facts like a recantation.
To get the information about Ms. Stiles’ recantation before a court, a new, civil, action had to be filed. This is a habeas corpus petition. (The term is Latin in origin, meaning, simply, “that you have the body.”) Such a petition permits someone to claim they are being held unlawfully. The petitioners have no right to a new jury, a judge decides the case. It is called a court trial.
At their first habeas trial in 2009, Mssrs. Gould and Taylor were found to be actually innocent after Ms. Stiles recanted her 1995 testimony. But our state Supreme Court reviewed that decision and reversed it, sending the matter back for a second habeas trial, and Mr. Gould was sent back to prison. (Mr. Taylor, who was terminally ill with cancer, was permitted to die at home.) At the second habeas trial, which took place in 2012, Ms. Stiles pleaded the Fifth Amendment to avoid offering testimony that might tend to incriminate her. Without her testimony, the request for a new trial failed. That case is now on appeal.
In three trials, Ms. Stiles offered three postures. What would she now say if she could testify without fear of prosecution?
We got to find just the other day when the state called Ms. Stiles to testify for a fourth time, this time in its prosecution of the private investigator who tracked her down and brought her to court for the habeas hearings. The state prosecuted Mr. O’Donnell for two counts of witness tampering, one count of bribery and two counts of perjury.
Ms. Stiles was wheeled into the courtroom by her court-appointed lawyer, looking battle-weary and worn by a lifetime of struggle.
“On advice of counsel, I plead the Fifth Amendment,” she told the prosecution from the witness stand. The state then did something it almost never does – it granted her immunity from prosecution for her testimony. This maneuver required her to testify now or face contempt proceedings; she could no longer plead the Fifth because the state guaranteed her she would not be prosecuted for what she said.
“I never saw Mssrs. Taylor and Gould at La Casa Green,” she told the jury at Mr. O’Donnell’s trial. “I told the truth at the first habeas trial,” she said. “I wanted to set things straight,” she explained. “Mr. O’Donnell did not seek to purchase my testimony or influence me,” she said. She also testified that when police tried to get her to sign a statement not long ago recanting her recantation, she would not do so because, as she put it, the document the police wanted her to sign was a lie.
In other words, Ms. Stiles once again asserted that she had nothing to offer in support of the state’s theory that Mssrs. Taylor and Gould were guilty of anything.
But she did testify that six months after she first recanted to Mr. O’Donnell, he bought her a television, helped her from time to time with rent, and suggested that she might benefit from the proceeds of a lawsuit if Mssrs. Gould and Taylor were ultimately exonerated.
Hell hath no fury like a sovereign scorned. So Connecticut prosecuted Mr. O’Donnell to send a message to the defense bar: “Don’t fight fire with fire. Stay away from our witnesses. If you don’t, you’ll go to prison, too.” Mr. O’Donnell’s jury was not permitted to learn of all the subtle, and not-so-subtle, inducements the state can offer witnesses it likes.
A jury acquitted Mr. O’Donnell of two counts of perjury. The judge threw out one of the witness tampering charges. But the jury convicted Mr. O’Donnell of bribery and the other count of witness tampering.
Just what is the truth about what Doreen Stiles saw? She’s twice testified, once under a grant of immunity, that she did not see the men convicted of killing Mr. DeLeon. Only when she was a junkie did she claim to see the men.
The state seems not to care for the truth. It used Doreen Stiles as a shameless prop to cripple a dogged investigator. I represented Mr. O’Donnell at trial, and was saddened by the verdict. Were I representing George Gould, I would also be outraged. You should be outraged, too.