Murder case from ’95 demands another look
George Gould and Ronald Taylor were convicted of felony 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 in the early morning of July 4, 1993. In 2010, their convictions were vacated by a habeas judge after the state’s key witness recanted her earlier testimony that she had seen men looking like them entering the bodega that morning.
But in 2011, the state Supreme Court reversed the judge on the grounds the men had not presented clear and convincing evidence of their innocence and ordered a new habeas trial. Taylor, terminally ill, was allowed to remain at home and died later that year. Gould returned to prison to await the new habeas trial.
In 2012, the judge in the new habeas trial denied Gould’s petition for a new criminal trial. In May, Judge Gerald Harmon, with the agreement of the prosecutors, approved a petition to reduce his sentence to time served and he was released from prison. But his release didn’t erase the conviction and his lawyers petitioned for another habeas trial. Originally scheduled to begin next March, it was recently postponed to December 2024. Whether the delay is the result of the backlog of habeas cases or the disinterest of the judicial branch in dealing with the case at this point is unclear. But one thing is clear: There’s good reason to think Gould and Taylor were wrongfully convicted.
Vega was shot in the walk-in refrigerator at the back of his store sometime around 5:30 a.m. Gould and Taylor were in the vicinity that morning but there were no fingerprints, DNA or other forensic evidence linking them to the crime. There was only the testimony of Doreen Stiles, a drug-addicted prostitute. She testified that as she walked on Grand Avenue she saw a large black man cross the street heading toward the store. Hiding in an alleyway next to it, she heard voices arguing, a demand to open the safe, screams in Spanish and a gunshot, and saw two men leave. Later, she identified photos of Gould and Taylor as the men she saw. Mary Boyd, another drug-addicted prostitute, testified that she saw movement in the store and two “persons of color” in it. She also testified she saw a white woman with a limp in the vicinity. Stiles is white and walked with a limp.
In 2003, Gould and Taylor filed habeas petitions and in 2006, Gerald O’Donnell, a former Cheshire police officer and state inspector investigating the case for their lawyers, located Stiles in a state rehabilitation facility in Wallingford. Stiles acknowledged she wasn’t at the scene and in a taped interview said she had fabricated the entire story. At Gould and Taylor’s 2009 habeas trial, she said she was arrested for prostitution three weeks after the murder and questioned by detectives working on the case. She said she told them she didn’t know anything about the murder. The detectives told her they had a statement from a woman who said she had seen a woman resembling Stiles near the store at the time. They said if she didn’t tell them what they needed to hear she would be booked for prostitution.
She was interrogated for about six hours, during which she experienced withdrawal symptoms. At one point, she said a detective told her he would help her buy heroin if she told them what happened. So she concocted her story. When the detectives showed her photos of Gould and Taylor, she said they smiled at each other and she concluded they were the men the police suspected. She said she had seen them at Vega’s store and filled in details about what had happened, coached by their suggestive questions. After six hours, the detectives gave her some money, drove her to a location in New Haven where she purchased heroin, and drove her home.
In March 2010, the habeas judge vacated Gould and Taylor’s convictions, but in 2011 the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the judge and ordered a new habeas trial. Soon thereafter, two state inspectors visited Stiles and told her she would be subpoenaed to testify at the new trial. What they said is not known, but, whatever they said, Stiles told them her original trial testimony was truthful and in a videotaped interview she recanted her recantation. At Gould’s 2012 habeas trial, she refused to testify. Her refusal, coupled with her videotaped recantation of her recantation, led the judge to deny Gould’s petition for a new trial.
Taylor is dead and Gould has been released from prison. Nevertheless, there’s good reason to believe they were wrongfully convicted. Gould’s habeas trial established that Vega’s son, Carlos DeLeon, who handled the bank transactions for the store, wrote a number of checks against the store’s account without his father’s knowledge, causing a $50,000 check Vega wrote for the purchase of a property across the street to bounce. The bank told Vega it wouldn’t reimburse him unless he authorized it to prosecute DeLeon. The first police officer to arrive at the scene of the murder saw a large ledger-sized checkbook near an open safe. DeLeon appeared soon afterward. Before the police photographed the scene, he and the checkbook disappeared.
Vega’s wrists had been tied with an electrical extension cord. There was DNA from an unidentified woman on the cord. Pam Youmans, a prostitute with whom Vega had frequent encounters, was at the store when he opened it. She went inside for 15 to 20 minutes. In 2009, O’Donnell recorded two conversations with Youmans. In the second conversation, she acknowledged she was with Vega when DeLeon shot him and that she touched the cord.
Vega was shot in the head with a .380 semiautomatic pistol. A state firearms expert testified the bullet probably came from a Colt .380. DeLeon was convicted in 1998 of risk of injury to a minor. Upon his conviction, he was required to turn in his firearms. He turned in several pistols, none of them a Colt. But he did turn in a .380 produced by another manufacturer and a magazine for a Colt .380.
In 2013, Stiles testified in another trial her original recantation was truthful. She said she was a drug addict, was going through withdrawal while being interviewed by the detectives, and was offered money to buy drugs. So she lied about being at the store: “They bought drugs for me, bought me clothes. It made it easy for me to go on with the lie. I couldn’t think right. I don’t know how else to put it.”
The habeas trial has been postponed to 2024. However, there is a more immediate pathway to justice for George Gould — and, even after his death, Ronald Taylor. The Division of Criminal Justice has, to its credit, recently created a conviction integrity unit to review cases in which there is good reason to believe an individual was wrongfully convicted. The unit should investigate this case and determine whether George Gould and Ronald Taylor were in fact wrongfully convicted.