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Inmate Finally Freed as D.A. Backs Off

Wrongly convicted of murder, he is ordered released after 24 years behind bars. He says he may bring suit against authorities.

April 03, 2004|Henry Weinstein and Christiana Sciaudone | Times Staff Writers

Thomas Lee Goldstein, wrongfully imprisoned for murder for 24 years, was freed Friday by a Long Beach Superior Court judge after the Los Angeles County district attorney's office finally conceded it had no case against him.

"I'm nervous and anxious and uncertain about the future, but I am glad to be out," Goldstein, a 55-year-old former Marine, said outside the Long Beach courthouse moments after his release.

A native of Kansas, Goldstein has always maintained his innocence in the November 1979 shotgun slaying of John McGinest on a Long Beach street. He had been living in a garage in a neighborhood near the scene of the murder and attending Long Beach City College.

He was convicted on the basis of testimony from a jailhouse informant and an eyewitness who later recanted.

In recent years, five federal judges agreed that Goldstein's constitutional rights had been violated by the district attorney's office during his 1980 trial.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge James B. Pierce ordered Goldstein released after a prosecutor told the judge that the district attorney's office was unable to retry him.

Earlier this week, Pierce dealt a critical blow to prosecutors' case when he ruled that they could not present testimony from Loran Campbell, the eyewitness who recanted his testimony in 2002 and died last year.

"In light of the court's previous ruling on the trial testimony of Loran Campbell, the people are unable to proceed," Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick Connolly said.

Goldstein looked numb as his nearly a quarter of a century in custody came to an end after a two-minute hearing.

After Connolly dismissed the charges, defense lawyer Charles L. Linder asked the judge to rule that the district attorney's office could not charge Goldstein again because this was the second time this year that a Superior Court judge had dismissed the case. Connolly had no objection and the judge agreed.

Lindner and Goldstein's lead attorney, Dale M. Rubin, briefly embraced their client before Goldstein left the courtroom. Rubin later drove Goldstein to a downtown Veterans Affairs center to meet with social workers, who he hopes will help facilitate his reentry to society.

Goldstein said he planned eventually to move back to Kansas, where his mother lives.

Wearing yellow and white jail clothes, Goldstein said he had been meditating to help ease the bitterness he felt toward those who tried him on the basis of two highly suspect witnesses.

Goldstein also indicated that he was considering a lawsuit against authorities.

Earlier in the day, Goldstein said he had been skeptical about whether authorities would set him free. He had been held even after a panel of three judges of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December that his constitutional rights had been violated and ordered his immediate release. After state and local officials failed to comply, the Justice Department initiated a criminal probe, which is pending in Los Angeles.

Goldstein's attorneys said they were pleased at Friday's outcome. But both expressed disgust that Goldstein had been imprisoned for so long on thin, unreliable evidence.

"They had nothing," Rubin said. "No fingerprints. No forensic evidence. No gun."

Linder said, "This was nothing but pure, outrageous false imprisonment."

In continuing to push the case the last four months, the district attorney's office engaged in "a display of prosecutorial chutzpah nearly equal to the mendacity it employed to secure the defendant's original conviction," Lindner declared outside the courtroom.

Sandi Gibbons, public information officer for Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, gave reporters a prepared three-paragraph statement that said Goldstein had been convicted by a jury, and that the verdict had been upheld by state appellate courts. The statement said the conviction had been overturned on the basis of the eyewitness -- Campbell -- "who, after two decades, recanted his identification of the defendant."

"When jury verdicts are overturned, it is incumbent upon a public prosecutor to make sure the evidence is reinvestigated, witnesses are reinterviewed and all legal and investigative avenues are explored as a decision is made on a retrial," the statement continued.

"In the Goldstein case, the available evidence was tested in court at this week's hearing," Gibbons said, referring to a Tuesday session at which Judge Pierce rejected the prosecution's attempt to use the transcript of Campbell's testimony from the 1980 trial.

Rubin contended that the testimony had been doubly discredited. Campbell had recanted, and the 9th Circuit ruling had held that Long Beach police had been "impermissibly suggestive" in helping Campbell identify Goldstein at trial.

"What the district attorney was trying to do was recycle the constitutional violations from 25 years ago and use them now to get a retrial against Mr. Goldstein, which does seem outrageous," Rubin said Friday, referring to the argument he had made in court earlier.

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