Connecticut’s Conviction Integrity Unit has taken public positions on three cases it’s reviewed. The position on one of those — Derrick Taylor’s 1995 convictions for murder, conspiracy to commit murder and assault in the first degree — is different from the other two memos published by the unit.
Taylor was convicted by a jury in 1995 for the murder of Fernando Aguiar and the shooting of his nephew at a Hartford bar in 1992. Much of the case has remained in dispute since Taylor’s arrest in 1994.
A memo from the Conviction Integrity Unit on the Taylor case doesn’t take a position on his innocence so much as it says his sentence should be modified, post haste. One might assume that the urgency had to do with the unit’s intolerance of injustice, that maybe one more day behind bars for an innocent man was too much for their consciences to bear. But that wasn’t it.
It was that Taylor’s mother was ill, diagnosed with breast cancer, and awaiting a surgical consult.
When Taylor and his attorney James Mortimer went to court in Hartford on July 26, 2023, to modify Taylor’s 80 year sentence, Mortimer advised him that he wouldn’t be released unless he abandoned his claims of innocence before the CIU and before the Superior Court in Rockville, the court that hears all petitions for writs of habeas corpus, the proceedings where prisoners argue for their release for reasons like actual innocence or ineffective assistance of counsel. The author of this deal was Sharmese Walton, the current State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Hartford.
Taylor didn’t know how his mother’s prognosis or even much longer she would live. Worried about her — her relationship with her son was strained by twenty-nine years of incarceration — Taylor traded any chance at exoneration for immediate freedom on July 26, 2023 to see her and help her through her illness and treatment.
Taylor’s mother is in remission now and he resides with her in Florida, having left Connecticut and all of his opportunities to clear his name behind.
Derrick Taylor should not be convicted of murder. He didn’t commit the crimes he spent almost three decades in prison for, yet the CIU has not only failed to clear him but the State of Connecticut has taken steps to maintain what they know is a wrongful conviction by taking advantage of a family in crisis over a member’s health.
Toward the end of his time in prison, the state began conceding that the conviction lacked integrity.
On January 7, 2022, at an off-the-record status conference for Taylor’s habeas proceedings, State’s Attorney Amy Bepko told the court that the state had concerns about the integrity of this conviction. According to the CIU’s protocol, that’s sufficient to open the case for further proceedings.
The state’s concerns about Taylor’s convictions surfaced again that day in July in Hartford. Attorney Walton admitted that there was doubt about Taylor’s conviction. She said Taylor’s fight for innocence was based on “things that maybe were or were not done about 30 years ago” that were “a bit uncertain.”
Three episodes of Law and Order would be enough to impart the lesson that doubt is enough to block a conviction. Yet, Walton stood before Connecticut Superior Court Judge David Gold as an officer of the court and not just allowed, but arranged for, Taylor to toss any chance at exoneration despite the known problems with his case.
The reason, Walton said, was that the victim’s family feared Taylor. To be clear, Taylor had never contacted the victim’s family and, since he wasn’t the shooter, he posed no danger of repeating the act.
Still, Walton asked for protective orders banning Taylor from contacting victims or their family members. The family’s trepidation might be understandable from their viewpoint; to them, Taylor snatched the life of their loved one. They’ve endured trauma at the hands of the gunman who killed Fernando Aguiar and shot his nephew.
But they’ve also been victimized by the state’s attorneys who pursued a case they knew was false. And, despite the Aguiar family’s considerable and legitimate pain, their fear and grief are not enough to justify maintaining a wrongful murder conviction, especially when it’s possible both to reduce a man’s sentence and allow him to pursue his claim of innocence. The state of Connecticut did exactly that for George Gould in 2021; his 80-year sentence was reduced as his post-conviction proceedings remained pending.
There are other ways the state could have played hardball while still allowing the conviction to go away. Its representatives could have negotiated with Taylor and asked him to forgo his claim for compensation and damages in exchange for having his name cleared. According to one Connecticut statute, Taylor could claim as much as 200 percent of the median household income for each year he was incarcerated. Given that the median income ranged from $72,560 to $99,420 during that time, Taylor might have been entitled to more than $4.8 million for his tribulations.
And Taylor would have accepted that offer.
“This was never, ever about money. I want to have a name. I want my name back. I want to be able to vote. I don’t want to walk through life as a convicted murderer,” he said.
But attorneys for the state didn’t offer that.
According to a source close to the matter, state’s attorneys knew that Taylor would likely prevail in his trial on actual innocence. To pressure him more, prosecutors told Taylor’s team that even if he won, they would just drag out the appeals process and keep him incarcerated for the duration, as long as 10 years. They were so committed to maintaining this wrongful conviction that they were willing to spend untold amounts of taxpayer money defending it rather than admit that the state got it wrong.
The timing of the memo is worth noting. On July 25, 2023, the CIU released the memo on Taylor, knowing that his trial date was two days later. They arrange for Taylor to appear in court for the sentence modification the next day where he’s presented with a Sophie’s Choice of giving up his quest for vindication to be free. Making the only rational choice, Taylor appeared in Rockville court the next day as a free man and withdrew the petition that was favored to win. The state squeezed a cheap win out of an innocent man who wanted to be with his ailing mother.
And even after the state’s attorneys eked out that win, they continued to shine Taylor on.
On July 27, the day Taylor’s trial for his habeas corpus petition was scheduled to begin, State’s Attorney Angela Macchiarulo of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office told Taylor: [Disclosure: the author has interacted with Macchiarulo and filed a grievance against her for making material misrepresentations on the record in her own habeas corpus petition].
“I just want you to know I’m really taking this seriously. And I never say this to defendants, but I actually believe that you’re innocent.”
“You know, I would just want someone to tell the family what actually happened, right?” Taylor told her. To this day, the fact that Aguiar’s family still hasn’t had it confirmed for them that the state had the wrong person is what breaks Taylor up the most.
“Well, it’s my hope that you’ll be able to tell them,” Macchiarulo replied to him, according to Taylor’s recollection.
Neither Taylor nor his attorney have heard from Macchiarulo or anyone from the state since that day this summer. And he hasn’t been able to say anything to the Aguiar family. Not only is he prevented by court order from doing so, he still lives with a criminal conviction that was fraudulently obtained and cripples him as he tries to move on with his life.
As Taylor told the court on July 26, he sacrificed being right for being free:
“No matter what happens today, my life is basically over. And their loved ones are gone. And no one’s ever been punished.”
Except for Taylor that is.