Could the pudgy fink get sued?
Appeals panel revives former inmate's suit against L.A. County
Jailhouse informer's perjured testimony led to Thomas Goldstein's 24 years in prison. Panel rules county had liability for administrative failures in the case.
By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
May 8, 2013, 11:01 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO — A man convicted of murder largely on the basis of a jailhouse informant's perjured testimony may attempt to hold Los Angeles County liable for his 24 years in prison, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit by Thomas Goldstein, who was released from prison in 2004 after a district judge found that informant Edward Fink had lied on the stand.
Fink, a heroin addict and felon, frequently received favors from prosecutors for testifying against defendants. His testimony against Goldstein earned him a reduced sentence.
Fink claimed that Goldstein told him in jail that he had a killed a man over money. On cross-examination, Fink lied when he said he had received no benefit for his testimony in that or other cases. The judge overturned Goldstein's conviction, and Los Angeles County prosecutors declined to retry him.
Goldstein later sued county prosecutors for having failed to disclose Fink's history to the defense. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled that individual prosecutors could not be held liable in such cases. A district trial judge then dismissed Goldstein's suit against the county.
Wednesday's decision reinstated the civil rights suit on the grounds that the county had liability for administrative failures in the case.
"The conduct at issue here does not involve prosecutorial strategy, but rather administrative oversight of systems used to help prosecutors comply with their constitutional duties," Judge Sidney R. Thomas, a Clinton appointee, wrote for the court.
The case turned on a technical legal question — whether a district attorney's office acts on behalf of the state or a county when establishing policies and training on jailhouse informants. States cannot be sued for civil rights violations.
"It is clear that the district attorney acts on behalf of the state when conducting prosecutions, but that the local administrative policies challenged by Goldstein are distinct from the prosecutorial act," the 9th Circuit said. "The Los Angeles County District Attorney represents the county when establishing administrative policies and training related to the general operation of the district attorney's office."
Goldstein said in his suit that the district attorney's office should have created an index to ensure that prosecutors knew the history of jailhouse informants, benefits they received for testifying and other information they might be required to turn over to defense lawyers.
The prosecutors in Fink's case said they had been unaware that Fink had received favors for testifying.
Barrett S. Litt, who is representing Goldstein, said similar suits in other states have generated verdicts of as much as $1 million a year for each year a person was wrongfully imprisoned.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, one of the 9th Circuit panelists, agreed with Wednesday's decision but wrote separately to point out that California had executed Tommy Thompson in 1998 on a murder and rape conviction "based on Fink's perjured testimony."
"It is unlikely that Thompson was death-eligible for his part in the crime, if he was guilty at all of any offense …," wrote Reinhardt, appointed by former President Carter. "Although Thompson was executed as a result of Fink's perjury (as well as the other unfortunate judicial matters…) the innocent Mr. Goldstein was fortunate enough to avoid that fate."