On the morning of February 25, 1984, the body of 72-year-old Edward Goulding was found stabbed to death in his bed in Cape Vincent, New York. Goulding’s body was discovered by the estranged wife of William Oakes. She told detectives that several months earlier, she and her daughter had moved in with Goulding.
Two Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office detectives, Robert Cooke and Edward Simser, located Oakes in Watertown, New York, about 45 minutes from Cape Vincent. They interrogated Oakes, who was mildly mentally challenged, for more than 15 hours before finally allowing him to leave the station at 3 a.m. on February 26 after he allegedly consented to a search of his room and his car. Nothing linking him to Goulding’s death was found, but nonetheless Oakes was arrested again that afternoon.
Following another lengthy interrogation, Cooke and Simser said Oakes confessed to stabbing Goulding because he was angry at him for allowing Oakes’ wife and daughter to move in with him.
Oakes went on trial in Jefferson County Supreme Court in November 1984. There was no physical or forensic evidence linking Oakes to the crime. The prosecution relied solely on the confession. Cooke and Simser denied physically or emotionally abusing Oakes to obtain the statement.
Oakes testified and denied committing the crime. He told the jury that he falsely confessed after the detectives banged his head against the inside of a police car, beat him and fired a pistol next to his head inside a police car.
Among the defense witnesses was a woman who rented an apartment to Oakes. She testified that she locked him in his apartment in Watertown, New York, from 8 p.m. on Friday evening, February 24, 1984 until 5:45 a.m. the following morning. During that time, his car was hemmed in between a camper and another vehicle in the driveway, she testified.
Another witness testified that Oakes was at a diner in Chaumont, New York, about a half hour from Watertown between 6 a.m. and 6:45 a.m. on the morning of February 25, 1984. He then went to his job at a Catholic Church, according to another witness.
A mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Oakes was tried a second time in September 1985. Prior to the verdict, a grand jury indicted Oakes for perjury for testifying at the first trial and denying that he killed Goulding.
At his second murder trial, the detectives again testified that Oakes had confessed to stabbing Goulding and denied that they mistreated Oakes. Oakes presented his alibi defense again, denied committing the murder and claimed that the officers had abused him during the interrogation.
In September 1985, the jury convicted Oakes and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
At that time, the prosecution moved to dismiss the perjury charge. While that motion was pending, two other Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office detectives, David Steyer and Richard Burns, gave sworn statements that Simser and Cooke admitted beating and abusing Oakes.
In his statement, Steyer said under oath that Simser told him about a “night of terror” when he and Cooke “scared the hell out of Oakes.” According to Steyer, Simser said they fired a gun three times near Oakes’ ear, pointed it at him and threatened to pull the trigger, and they beat Oakes. Steyer said Cooke gave a similar account of the shooting and beating in a separate conversation.
In 1986, when Steyer learned that acting Sheriff Franklyn Gowing was considering promoting Simser to the position of undersheriff, Steyer told Gowing about the statements of Simser and Cooke. Gowing notified the District Attorney and Burns executed a sworn statement saying that Simser and Cooke had admitted to the shooting and beating.
In May 1986, Gowing filed disciplinary charges against Steyer and Burns accusing them of failing to report crimes by fellow officers. Both ultimately were fired from the sheriff’s department.
After Gowing began disciplinary proceedings against Steyer and Burns, Oakes’ defense attorneys asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor. In June 1986, Governor Mario Cuomo asked state Attorney General Robert Abrams to investigate the claims that the officers lied at Oakes’ trial to cover up their mistreatment of him and the coercion of a false confession.
Oakes waived immunity and testified before the grand jury that was empaneled to investigate the statements by Steyer and Burns. Ultimately, the grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Cooke or Simser for their conduct in the Oakes interrogation, and instead indicted Oakes, Steyer and Burns on charges of perjury.
In May 1997, a jury convicted Oakes of six counts of perjury. Steyer and Burns were acquitted in a separate trial.
On December 21, 1990, the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division reversed and vacated Oakes’ murder conviction and dismissed the indictment. The court held that the prosecution had failed to meet its burden of disproving Oakes’ alibi defense beyond a reasonable doubt.
The court ruled, “The mere possibility that defendant could have managed to get out of the locked house, gone from Watertown to Cape Vincent without benefit of an automobile, and returned without waking his landlady…is, in our view, insufficient to disprove defendant's alibi defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
That same day, the Appellate Division reversed Oakes’ perjury conviction. The panel of judges, which included two judges who ruled on the murder case reversal, held that the trial judge had erred by refusing to allow Oakes’ defense lawyer to call a psychiatrist to testify that Oakes had a low IQ and was susceptible to being led by authority figures. Oakes’ lawyer had contended that the testimony was relevant to whether Oakes possessed the requisite specific intent to knowingly and willfully give false testimony.
The prosecution had objected because Oakes’ defense lawyer failed to give the prosecution sufficient notice of the intention to call a psychiatrist. The judge agreed the notice was late and barred the psychiatrist from testifying. The Appellate Division held that although the notification was late, the psychiatrist’s testimony was “crucial to the defense” because it may have explained why some of Oakes’ allegedly perjurious statements “failed to reflect reality” and “would have been relevant concerning (Oakes’) ability to comprehend the line between fact and fiction.”
One month later, in January 1991, Oakes was released on bond pending a retrial on the perjury charges. The Jefferson County District Attorney dismissed the charges in January 1992.
Oakes later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that was settled for an undisclosed amount. He also filed a claim with the New York Court of Claims, but it was denied.
– Maurice Possley