2 exonerated Conn. inmates freed after 16 years

The News Leader

April 1, 2010 5:44:00 PM PDT
Ronald Taylor and George Gould, wearing shackles and the orange jumpsuits assigned to the state's convicted killers, entered court Thursday flanked by prison guards. They left in new clothes fresh off the hangers, flanked by their families and basking in the court's affirmation that, despite 16 years in prison, they were never murderers at all.

Taylor, 51, and Gould, 48, were released Thursday on the order of Rockville Superior Court Judge Stanley Fuger, who called them victims of "manifest injustice" for being convicted of the 1993 killing of a New Haven store owner.

The star witness against them has since recanted, and a private investigator hired by state public defenders concluded the men's DNA was not found on a cord used to tie the victim's hands.

Gould said he never gave up hope.

"I've been waiting for this for a while, for a long time, but I always knew it would come to this day," said Gould, standing in the sun as a free man for the first time since being sentenced in 1995 to an 80-year prison term.

Taylor, who is in chemotherapy treatment for life-threatening liver cancer, said he had a few simple wishes: spaghetti with a perfect marinara sauce and garlic bread, time with his wife and family and to "live, just live - live outside those walls."

The judge last month overturned Taylor's and Fuger's convictions in the killing of Eugenio Deleon Vega in his store and ordered the men set free. Their release was delayed until Thursday because prosecutors had 10 days under court rules to challenge the order.

Prosecutor Michael O'Hare said the state will appeal the ruling that threw out the convictions, but he did not oppose the men's releases from prison in the meantime.

The two men had to sign promises to return to court if charged again, wear GPS monitoring devices to ensure they do not leave Connecticut, check in regularly with court officials and avoid contact with the grocery store owner's family.

Taylor's attorney Peter Tsimbidaros said they hope prosecutors decide against retrying the men after they read transcripts of the 20 days of trial testimony. Since the judge has ruled that the testimony of the so-called star witness was perjury, it cannot be used again.

"I'm still hopeful the state will do the right thing and drop the appeal, but if they don't, we're doing to fight it very, very aggressively," Tsimbidaros said.

The store owner's family has not attended the proceedings and could not immediately be located Thursday for comment.

The witness testified that she saw Gould enter the store and heard him arguing with the owner about opening his safe. She said she heard a gunshot and then saw Gould and Taylor leave the store.

But last year, she testified that she had lied and that she was not at the killing scene.

The judge said the witness in 1993 was a "deeply troubled" woman who was addicted to heroin and engaging in prostitution to fuel her habit.

The woman now says that she was "dopesick" at the time she named the men as killers, that police kept interrogating her as her symptoms worsened and that a detective told her he would help her buy heroin if she told them what happened.

Former Cheshire police officer and state inspector Gerald O'Donnell, who was hired as a private investigator by the public defender's office, also found that DNA on an electrical cord used to tie the store owner's hands did not match Taylor or Gould.

Taylor and Gould said Thursday that the peace of mind that comes with innocence helped them endure the last 16 years behind bars.

That certainty also helped Gould's mother, Martha Gould, 72, keep believing she would live long enough to see her son walk free.

"My baby is out," she said. "I got my baby out."

Taylor's wife, Mary Taylor, hugged O'Donnell as they waited for her husband to emerge from a room in the courthouse. Her voice cracking as she held him in a long embrace, she repeated, "What would we have done without you? Thank you, thank you."

Mary and Ronald Taylor were living together when he was charged in the killing. They wed in a ceremony in a New Haven jail with a guard and justice of the peace as witnesses. Then, she went home alone to wait and fight for his release - a wait that paid off Thursday, their 15th anniversary.

She gave much of the credit to O'Donnell, who told her at their first meeting, "I'm going to bring your husband home."

O'Donnell, who had worked on the case for more than seven years, called Thursday's events an overwhelming experience personally and professionally.

"I can't explain it, the ability to give somebody their life back," O'Donnell said. "It doesn't happen to many people."