Tap Dancing At The Gates Of Hell
Hell froze over one day last year and two men skated to freedom, set free by a judge of the Superior Court, who found that they were convicted in error and were the victims of manifest injustice. Last week, the state’s lawyers appeared before the State Supreme Court and urged the court to send the men back to prison. The state looked like the Devil on ice skates, all movement, fuss and rage, but unable to keep its balance.
Superior Court Judge Stanley Fuger ordered Ronald Taylor and George Gould set free after a habeas corpus hearing. The court concluded that the men were imprisoned for a crime the state could not proven, murder, a horrible crime for which each man was sentenced to an 80 year term. Sixteen years after being convicted, the men walked out of prison. It was an event so rare as to be perhaps unprecedented in Connecticut, where habeas relief is rarely granted.
At the original trial of the two men for the murder of a Fair Haven shopkeeper, the prosecution told jurors that the case "rises and falls on the testimony" of a now-recanting witness, a drug-addled regular of a police informant in New Haven. Now that she has come clean and her testimony is discredited, there was, Judge Fuger ruled, no reason to hold Mssrs. Taylor and Gould. Indeed, holding them for a crime the state could not prove would be obscene.
But the state thinks otherwise. Although the state may not be able to prove that the men committed the crime of murder, it believes they should be returned to prison. Why? Because in a habeas corpus proceeding, a person attempting to prove his or her actual innocence must do more than merely prove that no reasonable jury could have convicted him. He must also show that he did not, in fact, commit the crime.
Legal standards are tricky things in the hands of skilled lawyers, and few are skilled on their feet as Assistant State’s Attorney Michael O’Hare. He is everything a prosecutor should be: he is smart, he is honest, and he is a man of impeccable integrity. But why, oh, why, I wonder is he seeking to turn back the tide of justice in this case? Does he truly think that men victimized by a miscarriage of justice should be required to prove their innocent or return to the belly of an iron beast to die? Why this walk in Beelzebub’s shadow?
Chief Justice Chase Roberts seemed tempted by O’Hare’s argument. Oh, she assured lawyers arguing for the newly freed men, I am persuaded that there was not enough evidence to convict the men now that I have seen the testimony of the recanting witness. But the trouble is, she suggested, that these men need now to prove their innocence.
Just how, Madame Chief, are these men to do that? Can you give an account of your whereabouts on an ordinary evening some 17 or 18 years ago? Where were you eight days prior to your birthday in 1993? Produce your alibi witnesses! Tell us with specificity where you were, what your were doing, and with whom you were when the victim here was killed. If you cannot do that, then step down from the bench, abandon justice, and join Mssrs. Taylor and Gould in the despairing cell of a prison.
The state’s argument comes down to this: two men who should never have been convicted must now prove that they could not have committed the crime. Yet this proof will be impossible to provide. Hence, they should remain convicts. They should die behind bars. Finality of judgment is transformed in a flash into a dangerous fetish.
A people that cared about justice would rise up and demand the shackles intended for these men be transformed by alchemy into gold as compensation for all the wasted time spent behind bars. Judges concerned with seeing that justice was done would not rely on a doctrinal trick to destroy confidence in our courts. We await a ruling in the case of Mssrs. Taylor and Gould. I shudder to what this Court will do with two innocent men.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.