Friday, August 25, 2009
Judge Dismisses County From Suit by Man Imprisoned for 24 Years
By Steven M. Ellis, Staff Writer
A federal judge has dismissed a suit against Los Angeles County by a man who claims he was wrongfully imprisoned because a former district attorney and his top aide failed to protect against the possibility of cases being prosecuted by lawyers who were unaware of promises their colleagues made to informants.
U.S. District Court Judge Howard A. Matz of the Central District of California ruled Wednesday that Thomas Lee Goldstein could not maintain a federal civil rights action against the county because former District Attorney John Van de Kamp and former Chief Deputy District Attorney Curt Livesay were acting as officers of the state, not the county.
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 sued the city of Long Beach, four current or former police officers, the county and two deputy district attorneys in addition to Van de Kamp and Livesay.
The deputy district attorneys—Patrick Connolly, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, and Ann Ingalls—were dismissed, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that Van de Kamp and Livesay had absolute immunity. However, the case against the city and the officers remains pending with trial scheduled to commence in March, Goldstein’s counsel, Pasadena attorney Ronald Kaye, told the MetNews.
Goldstein claims 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 on a Long Beach street.
A college student and former U.S. Marine with a minor criminal record for drunkenness and disturbing the peace, Goldstein was arrested two weeks after the shooting, and police said an eyewitness, Loran Campbell—now deceased—picked Goldstein out of a photo array.
He was convicted primarily on the testimony of Campbell and Edward Fink, who testified that he was in the same jail cell as Goldstein and that Goldstein confessed to killing McGinest in a fight over money.
Goldstein’s lawyers claim that Campbell—who testified for the prosecution at trial, identifying Goldstein as the shooter, but retracted that identification 20 years later—did not identify Goldstein’s photo until after detectives specifically picked it out and falsely told Campbell that Goldstein was “the suspect” in the case.
Goldstein was convicted and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison, and his appeal was unsuccessful. Four years after he filed a habeas corpus petition in 1998, U.S. Magistrate Robert Block of the Central District of California concluded there was strong evidence that Fink had struck a deal with prosecutors, and that the prosecutors’ failure to tell the defense about it denied Goldstein a fair trial.
Block cited a 1990 grand jury investigation that documented the widespread use of false testimony from jailhouse informants in Los Angeles County during the late 1970s and 1980s. That probe was spawned by the revelation by prolific informant Leslie Vernon White that he was able to obtain information about cases, arrange to be placed in the same cell as those defendants, and then produce fabricated tales about confessions that were sufficiently detailed to come across as genuine.
Supreme Court Ruling
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings that would have allowed Goldstein to sue Van de Kamp and Livesay in a unanimous opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer—who said that the types of decisions for which the two were being sued were so closely related to the process of trying cases that absolute immunity applied—the county sought judgment on the pleadings, arguing that Van de Kamp and Livesay were acting on behalf of the state.
Matz agreed, reasoning that existing Ninth Circuit precedent examining the functions of California district attorneys and the control to which they are subject in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in McMillian v. Monroe County (1997) 520 U.S. 781 compelled him to conclude that district attorneys act as agents of the state.
However, Matz also said he would “probably” certify the determination for interlocutory review—should Goldstein so request—given the “close” nature of the issue and the fact that he was “profoundly concerned that the foregoing conclusion could result in a terrible injustice.”
Despite provisions in state law indicating that district attorneys are state officers, the judge noted that other provisions indicate to the contrary and that state law providing for supervision of local prosecutors by the attorney general did not necessarily establish that district attorneys acted for the state in setting policies for their office.
Kaye—who credited Matz’s “very thoughtful” analysis despite expressing disappointment with the result—said he did not yet know whether his client would seek review. He commented that he was “deep in litigation and discovery” in preparation for trial against the city and the officers, which he said “may weigh in” on the decision.
The case is Goldstein v. City of Long Beach, 04-9692.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company