June 21, 2004
Starting Over, 24 Years After a Wrongful Conviction
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