Starting Over, 24 Years After Wrongful Conviction
June 21, 2004
By JOHN M. BRODER
ASADENA, Calif., June 20 - Over the many long years in prison, Thomas Lee Goldstein's sense of disbelief, his bitterness at the judicial system, even his revenge fantasies slowly faded, leaving only a feeling of numbness and a grim patience.
He screamed his innocence to an unhearing world until finally one judge, then another, then another - five federal judges in all - agreed that he had been wrongly convicted of murder in 1980 and ordered him set free late last year. Even then, local authorities kept him locked up for four more months before turning him loose on April 2, more than 24 years after he was first picked up for a murder that it now seems clear he did not commit.
He emerged from the black hole of the California prison system on a Friday afternoon in a white-and-yellow jail jumpsuit, his feet in cheap slippers and his pockets empty, a white-haired man of 55. His first stop was at a Veterans Administration office in Los Angeles, hoping to get some clothes, a little money, a place to live. But the V.A.'s computers were down and officials could find no record of Mr. Goldstein's three years in the Marine Corps. He drove away with his lawyer, homeless and still empty-handed.
On his first night of freedom since November 1979, Mr. Goldstein's lawyer, Ronald O. Kaye, took him to a Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights, east of downtown Los Angeles, where he had a big plate of chicken enchiladas and his first beer in a quarter-century, a Bohemia.
The next morning, Mr. Goldstein said in an interview at Mr. Kaye's offices in Pasadena: "I called up an old girlfriend hoping for a day of wild sex. Of course she wasn't home, so I went to the law library instead."
Mr. Goldstein, whose dark hair has turned white and whose slight build has slid into a middle-aged paunch, told his story in the language of the trained legal investigator that he has become.
He said that he survived his years in a succession of California prisons, from San Quentin to Folsom to the maximum-security lockup at Tehachapi, with a combination of Transcendental Meditation and a return to his Jewish roots. While in prison, he had a Star of David tattooed on his forearm. He said he observed the High Holy Days and on several occasions he led Passover dinners with three or four fellow Jewish fellow prisoners, sharing a single Haggadah.
Mr. Goldstein, a native of Kansas and Texas who drifted out to California in the 1970's, spent countless hours in prison law libraries, eventually earning a paralegal certificate. He filed repeated habeas corpus petitions, first on his own, later with the help of public defenders, until in 1996 a federal judge agreed to hold a hearing on his case.
In 2002, Magistrate Judge Robert N. Block delivered a lengthy opinion stating that Mr. Goldstein had been wrongly convicted and ordered him released. Judge Dickran Tevrizian of Federal District Court in Los Angeles and a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit later affirmed his opinion.
The case arose from the shotgun killing on Nov. 3, 1979, of John McGinest in an alley in Long Beach near where Mr. Goldstein was living in an unheated $85-a-month garage. At the time, Mr. Goldstein said, he was an engineering student at Long Beach City College and drinking heavily. He had three arrests for disturbing the peace and public drunkenness, but no record of violence.
The police came to his residence two weeks after the crime to interview him and conduct a search. Although they found no forensic evidence linking him to the shooting, they arrested him and administered a polygraph exam, which was inconclusive. Nonetheless, they charged him with the murder based on what was later - years later - shown to be tainted testimony.
Mr. Goldstein's central contention was that the two chief witnesses against him - a jailhouse snitch named Edward Fink and a supposed eyewitness to the 1979 murder in Long Beach named Loran Campbell - had testified falsely at his 1980 murder trial, which lasted barely a week.
Both have since died, but Mr. Goldstein was able to establish conclusively that Mr. Fink, a habitual criminal, heroin addict and serial liar, had fabricated his account of Mr. Goldstein's "confession" to him when they were together briefly in a Long Beach police holding pen. Mr. Fink said on the stand at Mr. Goldstein's trial that he was receiving no benefit or leniency in exchange for his testimony, a statement that bolstered his credibility with the jury but that was flatly untrue, according to court documents. Mr. Fink became a central figure in a later grand jury investigation into the misuse of informant testimony in numerous criminal trials in Los Angeles County.
Mr. Campbell's testimony was the other key to Mr. Goldstein's conviction, the courts later found. He testified at trial that he saw Mr. Goldstein shoot the victim, but two years ago he recanted his testimony, saying he had been overeager to help the police and had been prompted in his identification of Mr. Goldstein by investigators. Other witnesses to the crime gave conflicting accounts, but none positively identified Mr. Goldstein as the shooter.
Mr. Goldstein was sentenced to 25 years in prison, plus two years for using a gun in a felony. A state appeals court affirmed the verdict after a relatively brief hearing.
Mr. Goldstein said that from the time of his arrest to his conviction nine months later he never believed he would be found guilty. He said that he wanted the proceedings speeded up to bring a quick end to his nightmare. "I just felt let's get this over with," he said. "I thought they'd give me a second polygraph and that would be the end of it."
But, he said: "Not only did no one believe what I said, but the police were putting words into witnesses' mouths. It was just a betrayal of trust by municipal and county employees."
He said that his mother, who still lives in Kansas, never believed he was guilty, but that he stopped corresponding with her and other members of the family after about five years in prison. "I got kind of depressed and I cut them all loose," he said. "It was very, very difficult on me and I just didn't want to deal with it."
Mr. Goldstein says he does not harbor dreams of revenge, but rather of holding the system that so betrayed him accountable. He spends his days as a paralegal at the small Pasadena law firm of Hadsell & Stormer and working with Mr. Kaye on a damage claim against the authorities who took his freedom.
Mr. Kaye said he had not yet decided how large that claim would be.
"How do you really evaluate in financial terms what 24 years of life are worth?" Mr. Kaye said. "He was locked up from age 30 to 55. He didn't have a chance to find a wife, have children, build a career. He is a talented legal researcher, a talented draftsman. I ask you, is $25 million enough? Is $50 million enough?"
Mr. Goldstein said his "sustaining fantasy" in prison was of a farm in Kansas, far from the confining gray walls of prison and the back streets of Long Beach.
"I dream of owning a large plot of land in the Midwest with a house and a dog and huge field of flowers and a grassy area," he said. "I want to just sit back there and look at the fields and fields of nothing, the antiprison."
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