On Wednesday (January 15, 2014), Gerald O’Donnell was sentenced to four years in prison for bribing and tampering with Doreen Stiles, the key witness in the 1995 trial of George Gould and Ronald Taylor for the 1993 murder of Eugenio Vega in New Haven. O’Donnell worked as a private investigator for Gould and Taylor’s lawyers prior to their 2009 habeas trial.
There was no evidence linking Gould and Taylor to the murder — no fingerprints, DNA, hair fibers, weapon, eyewitnesses. There was only Stiles’ testimony. Stiles, a drug-addicted prostitute, testified that as she walked toward Vega’s store on Grand Avenue in the early morning of July 4, 1993, 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 the store. Later, she identified photos of Gould and Taylor as the men she saw. The men were convicted and sentenced to 80 years.
Eleven years later, O’Donnell, working as an investigator for Gould and Taylor’s habeas lawyers, tracked down Stiles in early December 2006 in a nursing home. In their first conversation, she told him she wasn’t near Vega’s store that morning, had not seen the men, and had made up the account over the course of a six-hour interrogation during which she experienced withdrawal symptoms, was threatened with arrest for prostitution, and was offered money to buy drugs. He immediately provided the state’s attorney’s office with a tape and transcription of the interview.
Five months later, while visiting Stiles, O’Donnell noticed that she and two other women were listening to a television that had no picture. He went to a Walmart and bought them a cheap television. Over the next couple of years, he would drop in on her from time to time and sometimes bring her a pizza or give her a small amount of cash.
At Gould and Taylor’s 2009 habeas hearing, Stiles reiterated what she told O’Donnell in their first meeting — that she wasn’t in the vicinity of the store that morning and made up the whole story during a six-hour interrogation in which she was threatened with being charged with prostitution, was “dope sick,” and was offered help in buying heroin. Persuaded by her recantation, Judge Stanley T. Fuger Jr. threw out the convictions and released the men.
The state appealed and in July 2011, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed Fuger and remanded the case to the habeas court for a new trial, claiming — bizarrely — that, despite the absence of any other evidence that implicated the men, Stiles not being at the scene of the crime didn’t prove they were innocent.
Soon thereafter, Stiles was visited by two state inspectors, both former New Haven police officers. What they said is not known. They may have informed her that she would be subpoenaed to testify at the new habeas trial. They may have mentioned that in 2010 the state had removed the five-year statute of limitations for perjury, meaning she could be charged with perjury for her original trial testimony if she repeated her 2009 recantation at the new trial.
Whatever they said, her response led them to ask if she would speak with the New Haven police and to contact a New Haven detective and suggest that he speak with her. The detective did so in a videotaped interview in which Stiles attributed her 2009 recantation to O’Donnell and his offer of clothes and money and purchase of pizza, a television and a stereo. It was that videotaped statement that provided the basis for the bribery and tampering charge.
At Gould’s 2012 habeas trial — Taylor died in October 2011 — Stiles, acting upon the advice of her attorney, invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. She did so because, without immunity, whatever she said — whether she repeated the account she told at the original trial or her 2009 recantation — would have exposed her to a charge of perjury.
So at O’Donnell’s trial last fall, the state granted her immunity, thinking that if she was protected from prosecution for any previous false testimony she would repeat what she said in the July 2011 interview. Instead, she repeated her 2009 recantation, saying once again that she was not near Vega’s store that morning and did not see the men at the store.
Explaining her original testimony, she said she was a drug addict at the time, was going through withdrawal, and the officers interrogating her offered to assist her in buying drugs. “They bought drugs for me, bought me clothes. It made it easy for me to go on with the lie.” While acknowledging that O’Donnell bought her a television and gave her some money, she denied his gifts had anything to do with her recantation; when asked why she recanted, she said, “I had a chance to make right what I did wrong then.”
In convicting O’Donnell, the jury ignored Stiles’ sworn testimony and chose to believe instead what she said in the 2011 videotaped interview, despite the fact that the circumstances that prompted that interview are not known and the fact that at various points in the interview Stiles acknowledged that some of her original trial testimony was false and that some of what she said in the interview itself was false.
O’Donnell compiled an impeccable record as a police officer in Cheshire and later as an inspector in the New Haven state’s attorney’s office. He did not bribe and tamper with Stiles; her recantation occurred long before he bought her a TV and gave her pizza and small amounts of money when he visited.
In prosecuting O’Donnell on the basis of Stiles’ unreliable comments in the 2011 videotaped interview, Tolland State’s Attorney Matthew C. Gedansky abused the powers of his office. O’Donnell’s conviction was, as Judge Fuger said of Gould and Taylor’s, a “manifest injustice.” And his sentence, by Judge James T. Graham, was excessive, indeed so excessive as to be gratuitously cruel.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale and a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force.