Tuesday, November 18, 2008
State Supreme Court Limits Access to Grand Jury Materials
Ruling Is Setback to Man Who Spent 24 Years in Prison for Killing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Trial courts have no inherent authority to grant discovery of grand jury materials for use in a lawsuit, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Reversing Div. Three of this district’s Court of Appeal, the justices said Thomas Goldstein, who is suing former county officials for false imprisonment, can only obtain grand jury transcripts related to his case if they show that witnesses gave conflicting testimony at this trial.
Goldstein spent 24 years in prison on a first degree murder conviction before a federal judge found that exculpatory evidence had been withheld from his attorneys. He was convicted largely on the testimony of Loran Campbell and Edward Floyd Fink,
Campbell identified Goldstein as the shooter, but retracted that identification 20 years later and claimed that he testified as he did because police told him Goldstein was guilty and he wanted to be a good citizen. Fink, a cellmate who denied receiving anything in exchange for his testimony, said Goldstein told him he was in jail because he shot a man in a dispute over money.
Misuse of Informants
Years later, a Los Angeles County grand jury concluded that county prosecutors had long misused the testimony of jailhouse informants who obtained information about crimes from other sources and then falsely attributed confessions to their cellmates in exchange for favors. Prosecutors, the grand jury said, showed a “deliberate and informed declination to take the action necessary to curtail the misuse of jailhouse informant testimony.”
The magistrate judge who recommended that Goldstein’s habeas corpus petition be granted found that “Fink fits the profile of the dishonest jailhouse informant that the Grand Jury Report found to be highly active in Los Angeles County at the time of [Goldstein’s] conviction.”
Goldstein subsequently sued the City of Long Beach, four current or former police officers, Los Angeles County, former District Attorney John Van de Kamp, and former Chief Deputy District Attorney Curt Livesay.
His federal complaint says police used “false and fabricated evidence,” including a jailhouse informant’s made-up claim of a confession, to convict him of the 1979 shotgun murder of John McGinest.
In March of last year, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Van de Kamp and Livesay lack absolute prosecutorial immunity. The allegation that they failed to failed to protect against the possibility of cases being prosecuted by lawyers who were unaware of promises made by their colleagues to informants deals with administrative functions to which absolute immunity does not attach, the federal panel ruled.
Goldstein moved that grand jury materials related to the informant investigation be disclosed to him for use in the suit. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza denied the motion, reasoning that none of the statutes permitting public release of grand jury materials applied, and that he thus could not order disclosure for purposes of a lawsuit, even under a protective order.
Public Disclosure Precluded
The Court of Appeal disagreed. The panel held that while the statutes precluded broad public disclosure of the transcripts, the courts had inherent authority to order their release for the limited purpose of litigation “to redress an injustice investigated by the grand jury.”
But Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the high court, said the traditional strictures against disclosure of grand jury testimony apply to materials sought by private litigants.
The justice cited Daily Journal Corp. v. Superior Court (1999) 20 Cal.4th 1117, and McClatchy Newspapers v. Superior Court (1988) 44 Cal.3d 1162, in which the high court rejected arguments that disclosure of grand jury transcripts could be ordered, without a specific statutory basis, in order to further the public interest.
“If the courts had broad inherent authority to release grand jury materials to litigants in the interests of justice, there would be no need for the statutes permitting disclosure in limited circumstances,” the justice wrote. “We have not distinguished between public and private disclosure. Indeed, we relied on the statutes governing disclosure to litigants to support our holdings restricting public disclosure in both McClatchy and Daily Journal.”
Corrigan went on, however, to say that Goldstein may be able to obtain disclosure under Panel Code Sec. 924.2, which the Court of Appeal found inapplicable. That section, dating back to the 1850s, before grand jury proceedings were transcribed, provides in part that “[a]ny court may require a grand juror to disclose the testimony of a witness examined before the grand jury, for the purpose of ascertaining whether it is consistent with that given by the witness before the court....”
The justice explained:
“To preserve the narrow scope of the statute, the appropriate procedure is for the witness to testify first. Counsel may then request the court to examine the transcript of that witness’s grand jury testimony in camera, to determine if it provides potentially relevant impeachment material. If it does, the court may release the relevant pages to counsel, with a protective order restricting the use of the material to impeachment.
We leave it for the superior court and the federal district court, with the cooperation of the parties, to sort out additional appropriate procedures for providing Goldstein with access to the testimony of grand jury witnesses under section 924.2, should he seek that limited form of disclosure.”
The opinion was joined by Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin Baxter, Kathryn M. Werdegar, and Ming Chin.
Kennard also authored a concurring opinion, suggesting that trial courts may, in the absence of statutory authority, order disclosure of grand jury materials based on a showing of “absolute necessity,” a showing Goldstein did not claim to make.
Justice Carlos Moreno, concurring separately, also endorsed an “absolute necessity” exception, under which a litigation would be required to show “(1) that the information sought is necessary to prosecute his or her claim; (2) that the information cannot reasonably be obtained through the usual means of civil discovery short of resorting to grand jury materials...(3) that granting the request will not undermine the essential functions of grand jury secrecy, including that of ensuring that the disclosures will not chill the testimony of future grand jury witnesses; (4) that the request is narrowly tailored to accomplish these ends.”
The case was argued in the Supreme Court by Ronald O. Kaye of Kaye, McLane & Bednarski for Goldstein; Principal Deputy County Counsel Gordon W. Trask for the grand jury, and Douglas Fee of Collins, Collins, Muir & Stewart for the county, Van de Kamp, and Livesay.
The case is Goldstein v. Superior Court (Grand Jury of Los Angeles County), 08 S.O.S. 6184.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company