Gould v. Comm'r of Corr.

Decision Date19 July 2011
Docket NumberSC 18732,SC 18733
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

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The syllabus and procedural history accompanying the opinion as it appears on the Commission on Official Legal Publications Electronic Bulletin Board Service and in the Connecticut Law Journal and bound volumes of official reports are copyrighted by the Secretary of the State, State of Connecticut, and may not be reproduced and distributed without the express written permission of the Commission on Official Legal Publications, Judicial Branch, State of Connecticut.Rogers, C. J., and Norcott, Palmer, Zarella, McLachlan, Eveleigh and Vertefeuille, Js.

Michael E. O'Hare, supervisory assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael Dearington, state's attorney, John Waddock, senior assistant state's attorney, and James G. Clark, former senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellant (respondent in both cases).

Joseph Visone and Peter Tsimbidaros, for the appellees (petitioner in each case).


EVELEIGH, J. In Summerville v. Warden, 229 Conn. 397, 421, 641 A.2d 1356 (1994), this court held that a petitioner may seek a new trial pursuant to a writ of habeas corpus on the basis of a substantial claim of actual innocence unaccompanied by an antecedent showing of a constitutional violation that affected the fairness of the petitioner's criminal trial.1 The necessity for delineating the requisite proof to prevail on such a ''freestanding'' claim of actual innocence did not arise, however, until this court's decision in Miller v. Commissioner of Correction, 242 Conn. 745, 700 A.2d 1108 (1997). The present case requires us to elaborate on the meaning of ''actual innocence'' under the test set forth in Miller v. Commissioner of Correction, supra, 791-92 (Miller test). Specifically, we must address whether credible recantations of testimony that was the sole evidence of guilt can constitute clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence, as required under that test.

The respondent, the commissioner of correction, appeals2 from the judgments of the habeas court granting the petitions for writs of habeas corpus filed by the petitioners, George M. Gould and Ronald Taylor.3 The respondent's dispositive claim is that the habeas court applied an improper standard when it granted habeas relief on the basis of recantations by two of the state's witnesses. We conclude that the trial court improperly failed to recognize that, under the Miller test, actual innocence requires affirmative evidence that the petitioners did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted, not simply the discrediting of evidence on which the conviction rested. Accordingly, the habeas court's judgments granting the petitions must be reversed and the cases must be remanded for a new trial under the proper standard.

The record reveals the following undisputed facts and procedural history. On July 4, 1993, at 5:08 a.m., Eugenio Vega, the owner of La Casa Green, a retail store on Grand Avenue in the Fair Haven section of New Haven, entered the store and deactivated its alarm system. At 5:42 a.m., the police received a 911 call alerting them to suspicious activity at the store from Mary Boyd, a regular customer who became concerned when she could not locate Vega inside or outside of the open store. At 6:05 a.m., two officers from the New Haven police department arrived at the store. Upon entering and searching the premises, the officers went to the back of the store where they noticed an open safe and a wallet, lying in plain view, which contained no cash. Officer Keith Wortz opened the door to a nearby walk-in freezer and found Vega inside, slumped over in a semi seated position with his hands bound in front of him with an electrical extension cord. Vega had been fatally shot at close range by a single gunshot to hisleft temple.

In the following days, the police canvassed the neighborhood and obtained interviews from several people who had either seen Vega or been in the vicinity of the store between 5 and 6 a.m. on the morning of the shooting. The petitioners were among those who eventually were interviewed. In the course of those interviews, they admitted that they had gone out together to raise money to buy drugs in the vicinity of La Casa Green, first at 11:30 p.m. on July 3, 1993, and later at approximately 3 a.m. on July 4, 1993.4

On July 29, 1993, the police obtained information connecting the petitioners to Vega's shooting. On that date, the police arrested Doreen Stiles in a prostitution sweep of the Fair Haven area. Because Stiles regularly worked in that area, the police questioned her about the shooting. After several hours of questioning, Stiles stated that she had been outside of the store, had heard someone threaten Vega and had seen two men, later identified as the petitioners, leave the store. The police reinterviewed Pam Youmans, who had been in the store with Vega just after he had opened it. Youmans then stated for the first time that she had seen a woman, later identified as Stiles, outside of La Casa Green that morning. The police also reinterviewed Boyd, who stated that, on the morning of the murder, she had seen two dark skinned men in the store, one shorter than the other, when looking from the outside of the store inside through the front window.5

The petitioners were arrested and charged with murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a (a), felony murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54c, robbery in the first degree in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-134 (a) (2) and 53a-8, criminal attempt to commit robbery in the first degree in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-134 (a) (2), 53a-8 and 53a-49, and conspiracy to commit robbery in the first degree in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-48 (a) and 53a-134 (a) (2). At a joint trial before a jury, the state's theory was that the petitioners had robbed and killed Vega as part of a night long spree to obtain more drugs. The state's key witness was Stiles, who presented the only evidence directly connecting the petitioners to the crimes. Boyd and Youmans also testified about their observations, consistent with their latest statements to the police. In support of the robbery related charges, Susana Negron, Vega's daughter and the store's bookkeeper, testified that she had not made her usual weekly bank deposit for the store's cash receipts the week before her father was shot and that, several months earlier, she had seen jewelry, cash and coins in the safe. The petitioners did not testify. In their defense, they attempted to discredit Stiles, to call into question whether a robbery had occurred and to underscore the absence of any physical evidence linking them to the crimes.

The jury acquitted the petitioners of the murder charge but convicted them on all of the other counts. The trial court, Fracasse, J., thereafter sentenced each petitioner to a total effective sentence of eighty years imprisonment. The petitioners directly appealed to this court, which affirmed the judgment, with the exception of Taylor's conviction of attempt to commit robbery in the first degree.6 State v. Gould, 241 Conn. 1, 695 A.2d 1022 (1997).

In October, 2003, the petitioners filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus. Following continuances to, inter alia, obtain DNA testing of the cord used to tie Vega's hands, in May, 2009, the petitioners filed the amended petitions at issue in the present appeals. In those petitions, they sought relief on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel and actual innocence.7 The thrust of the allegations in support of these claims was: (1) there was evidence that was not produced at their criminal trial that would have cast doubt on whether a robbery actually had occurred, as well as evidence pointing to a motive and means for Vega's son, Carlos DeLeon Vega (DeLeon), to have committed the murder; (2) the DNA test exonerated the petitioners; and (3) both Stiles and Boyd had recanted their testimony.

The habeas court, Fuger, J., rejected the ineffective assistance of counsel claim, but agreed with the petitioners that the evidence demonstrated their actual innocence. The court began its memorandum of decision with a discussion of the legal requirements for a claim of actual innocence. It concluded that it was bound by Appellate Court case law holding that the petition must be predicated on newly discovered evidence, but found that the recantations by Stiles and Boyd met this requirement.8 It noted that the appellate courts had not yet addressed an actual innocence claim based ''almost entirely, if not solely, on a recantation.'' The habeas court acknowledged that, although courts must view recantation evidence skeptically, such skepticism does not operate as a bar to relief when the recantation is found to be credible. In reaching that conclusion, the court relied on case law addressing petitions for a new trial. The habeas court nonetheless...

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