By GREGORY B. HLADKY
12:56 PM EST, January 16, 2014
A 69-year-old former cop and private investigator has been hit with a four-year prison sentence after a jury convicted him of witness tampering and bribery for his work on a highly controversial New Haven murder case.
The sentence handed down by Superior Court Judge James T. Graham was a harsh one for Gerald O'Donnell, but it's unlikely to still the questions that continue to surround the 1993 killing of New Haven bodega owner Eugenio Deleone Vega.
O'Donnell is going to appeal the sentence, as he is appealing his conviction, and more may hang on the final outcome of his case than some time in prison.
Two men, George Gould and Ron Taylor, were convicted of the Vega's gunshot murder, almost entirely on the testimony of a single witness named Doreen Stiles.
A prostitute and former drug addict, Stiles later recanted her testimony, claiming New Haven police had pressured her into fingering Gould and Taylor for the crime. The police and prosecutors deny the accusation. Stiles has repeatedly changed her story of what happened, and one expert labeled her completely unreliable.
O'Donnell was prosecuted on allegations that he gave Stiles a television, food, and some cash and promised her more money if she'd change her testimony against Gould and Taylor. Stiles, for what it's worth, has denied in court that O'Donnell got her to alter her story.
One state judge called the conviction of Gould and Taylor a "manifest injustice" and ordered them free after lengthy hearings. The state Supreme Court overruled his decision and ordered a new set of hearings.
Taylor (over the objection of prosecutors) was allowed to go home to die of colon cancer. Gould was returned to prison and that second judge decided that having the key witness in his murder case recant testimony wasn't enough to grant him his freedom.
The catch here is that there was no physical evidence in the Vega murder linking Gould and Taylor to the crime: No fingerprints, no DNA traces, no weapon found, and - even though the crime was alleged to have been a robbery - more than $1,800 was left at the scene. The only evidence that convicted Taylor and Gould was Stiles' testimony.
O'Donnell's conviction and prison sentence is likely to weigh heavily against Gould's chances in another appeal, and could indirectly influence other cases involving people who claim they've been wrongly convicted in this state.
Lawyers working to free wrongly imprisioned people in Connecticut say the court rulings concerning recanted testimony by a key witness will make their job even more difficult.
Judge Graham said while sentencing O'Donnell that his crimes "strike at the heart of the judicial process."
Except that there remain doubts that the judicial process was right and fair in convicting George Gould and Ron Taylor.