August 29, 1992 was a hectic night at Cambrense Cafe in New Park Avenue in Hartford. The bar’s clientele had been arguing with each other. Frank DeJesus, who helped the bar’s owner clear customers at closing time had to calm a few people down. One of them was Felix “Ghost” Baez. Ghost was known at Cambrense to be a bit of a wild one. He started an argument with another customer and DeJesus intervened.
“Why do you always start trouble when you come in here?” DeJesus asked him.
DeJesus watched Fernando and Helder Aguiar escort Ghost outside.
Later DeJesus heard what he thought were gunshots. He looked out the cafe’s kitchen window and saw two guys running away, one with a shirt that he had seen Ghost wearing earlier that night, a hooded white sweatshirt with a pattern on the front. DeJesus and his friend, Steven Whitecloud, ran outside the cafe to find the Aguiars shot. They gave chase in the direction of the two men they saw fleeing the scene.
Their pursuit of the probable gunmen wasn’t easy. Whitecloud cut his hand. He had trouble scaling a fence. DeJesus and Whitecloud eventually ran into some Hartford police and told them what they had seen. DeJesus went to the station house and completed a written statement about all he knew about what happened that night. He also picked Ghost Baez out of a photo array and signed the back of it, putting his hand to his testimony.
Frank DeJesus’ statement was never provided to counsel for Derrick Taylor, the man eventually charged with the murder of Fernando Aguiar and the assault of Helder Aguiar. The summary of Taylor’s case by the state’s Conviction Integrity Unit spans 26 pages and goes into extraordinary detail on certain points while completely ignoring others, like the absence of DeJesus’s statement in the casefile.
Single Witness made ‘Paper thin’ case
With DeJesus absent from the witness list in Taylor’s trial, there was one witness who connected Taylor to the crime: a Jamaican national named Fitzalbert Williams. Williams was a member of a rival gang (Taylor was a member of the Latin Kings in his youth) who was out on a furlough from prison at the time and violating the terms of his temporary release by drinking. Williams told Hartford police that he saw two people running away from the scene of the shooting.
Williams was right about one thing: two people did run away from the shooting. They were the shooters. It appears now that Williams didn’t even see them. He saw DeJesus and Whitecloud at the fence. Hartford state’s attorneys knew this, that Williams hadn’t ever seen a shooter but had seen two good Samaritans trying to track down their friends’ assailants but they never said a word about it.
The case against Derrick Taylor was based on a lie from the outset. Prosecutors knew what their only witness was saying was demonstrably untrue yet they built a case around it and stood by it, spending money to defend it for almost three decades.
Not only did they know that Fitzalbert Williams was wrong, state’s attorneys hid the fact that their star witness had credibility problems, and even went so far as to ask prosecutors “What do you want me to say?”
That’s an important question because if Williams said the right thing in Taylor’s case, he could avoid punishment in another case that was pending against him in Milford.
The attorney prosecuting Taylor, State’s Attorney Herbert Carlson, knew that Williams was being sentenced in Milford, under an alias no less, the name Litvin Gooden. He was committing a form of identity theft, pleading guilty to a narcotics charge and ensnaring his best friend, who happened to be in London at the time, in a two year probation sentence that he ultimately served when he arrived back stateside.
Carlson wrote a letter to the then-State’s Attorney in Milford, Mark Hurley — who eventually went to prison and lost his license for stealing money paid by criminal defendants who were making charitable contributions as part of diversionary programs — and asked for Williams to get a deal. It wasn’t subtle.
“The reason for this letter is in hopes that his cooperation with a constituent Prosecutor’s Office can be brought to the attention of the Judge at sentencing for whatever consideration might be appropriate.”
Williams, as Gooden, received probation for a charge that usually resulted in several years in prison when a defendant was found guilty of it.
There’s another common-sense problem with the case against Taylor. The state’s file and the unit’s memo describes pairs of men shooting, running, fleeing. Derrick Taylor has never been charged with a co-defendant nor has a partner in crime ever even been identified.
CIU acted appropriately, even honorably, in opening records
Right away, the two attorneys manning the Conviction Integrity Unit at the end of 2022, Thai Chhay and Supervisory States Attorney Joseph Valdes, secured the records in Taylor’s case and opened them completely to his attorney.
“To their credit, they did pull the entirety of his file from the Hartford Police Department, who had previously indicated they had nothing on record. As well as materials from the original prosecutor’s file. They were able to turn over some extremely exculpatory materials,” Taylor’s attorney James Mortimer said in an interview.
Chhay left the unit last December, according to the Conviction Integrity Unit’s 2022 annual report. Valdes left the unit soon after. Neither departure was announced. Two witnesses, who want their names withheld, have suggested that Chhay and Valdes connect their relocation to other state’s attorney’s outposts — Chhay is in Waterbury, and Valdes in Stamford — after they were so forthcoming with the evidence of malfeasance in the Taylor case.
When asked about Chhay’s and Valdes’ moves to other posts with the state’s attorney’s apparatus, the Division of Criminal Justice did not answer the email.
Too many conflicts of interest
What’s telling are the facts that aren’t revealed in the Conviction Integrity Unit’s public decision, namely that the initial suspect, the late Felix “Ghost” Baez, who was identified by his nickname by witnesses, is the brother of a Hartford police detective, Ramon Baez.
While there’s little information on the initial interview of Baez, the unit omitted another key fact, namely that investigators found the clothing that Ghost Baez, brother of their police colleague, was wearing that evening, wet and bagged up hidden behind his couch. It bears mentioning that Detective Baez was suspended by the Hartford Police Department for 45 days in 2002 for opening the door of a police cruiser to release his cousin who had been detained by a lieutenant for fighting in a bar.
The unit’s memo doesn’t mention either of these two bombshells even though it was the unit’s office that unearthed them and provided this information to Taylor’s defense team. It doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t be included in the memo— until another fact surfaces, namely that CIU inspector John Betz — his name is listed as one of the evaluators on the cover page of the CIU’s memo on Taylor — was part of the original investigation team assigned to the Agiuar murder and shooting crimes in 1992. The Division of Criminal Justice has not answered a request for comment or to confirm whether Betz knows or knew Hartford Police officer Ramon Baez.
Commitment to opacity
The Conviction Integrity Unit emphasizes its commitment to transparency in its protocol. Indeed, State’s Attorney Sharmese Walton said at Taylor’s July 26, 2023 sentence modification hearing that she wanted to “highlight…the Hartford State’s Attorney’s Office’s commitment to transparency in prosecution and commitment to the highest ethical standards. That is a — a commitment that’s shared on behalf of the Division of Criminal Justice.”
But that commitment to transparency, to letting the public see everything about a case, becomes meaningless when the most startling facts of a wrongful conviction are concealed, and the attorneys who were most open about it slip out the back.
If anything, the mask has started to slip in the unit’s handling of Derrick Taylor’s application for conviction review. The unit relies on and protects opacity. The unit isn’t concerned with clearing wrongful convictions. They want to cement them into place. And the best evidence of that is that admittedly wrongful conviction for the late Litvin Gooden, the one the state’s attorney’s office acknowledged was patently false. That’s still on the books, too. The unit didn’t do anything to correct that either.