A Los Angeles federal judge has opened the door for defense attorneys to conduct a potentially significant investigation of secret records on the district attorney's unethical use of jailhouse informants in the 1970s and '80s, legal experts said.
U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz ruled that attorneys for Thomas L. Goldstein could investigate charges of widespread corruption in the district attorney's use of such informants. Goldstein - who spent 24 years wrongfully imprisoned on murder charges, partly on the word of a jailhouse informant - filed a civil rights lawsuit against Los Angeles County and Long Beach after he was freed last year.
Matz emphasized in his ruling that Goldstein's case "does not focus on a violation limited to one actual prosecution."
"Plaintiff claims that decades-long operations of the largest prosecutor's office in the United States violated constitutional rights of many individuals," Matz wrote. "The practices consisted of failing to provide required ethical supervision and discipline; creating barriers to the dissemination of information within its ranks; assigning personnel in a manner that perpetuated these violations; and ignoring findings of an investigative body."
After problems with jailhouse informants erupted in 1988, a special county grand jury was convened, which two years later issued a report saying that the district attorney's office had "failed to fulfill the ethical responsibilities required of a public prosecutor."
The investigation, which showed that prosecutors frequently presented the same dubious informants in multiple cases without telling defense attorneys, led to a significant reduction in their use.
But the district attorney failed to ensure that all attorneys in the office shared information about deals they had cut to persuade informants to testify, Goldstein's lawyers charged in their suit. Goldstein also said prosecutors had exhibited a pattern of presenting false confessions obtained by jailhouse informants.
Gigi Gordon, the Los Angeles defense attorney who played a critical role in unearthing the way jailhouse informants were used in the 1970s and '80s, said, "There is documentation about this which I have seen that it was quite deliberate" that the district attorney's office avoided setting up a system to distribute information about rewards for jailhouse informants.
"It was understood that if they did do it, they would have to give up a huge amount of information," Gordon said.
Prosecutors by law must disclose to the defense all exculpatory information, and, since a 1972 Supreme Court ruling, have been required to reveal any benefits given in exchange for informants' testimony.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, declined to comment on the ruling, except to say, "We would defer to our attorneys on this, the county counsel.''
Deputy County Counsel Roger Granbo said the county is thinking about an appeal.
Pasadena attorney Ronald O. Kaye, Goldstein's lead lawyer, said he was very pleased with Matz's "courageous" ruling. Kaye said he and his colleagues would pursue extensive discovery that he believed would reveal heretofore undisclosed information about the use of jailhouse informants at the time of Goldstein's case and afterward.
Long Beach police officers arrested Goldstein in November 1979 on suspicion of the shotgun slaying of John McGinest. Goldstein was prosecuted by Deputy Dist. Atty. Timothy Browne, who has since retired.
Goldstein's conviction was based largely on the testimony of an eyewitness who later recanted and of a jailhouse informant who a judge later said "fits the profile of the dishonest jailhouse informant."
A Marine veteran who served in Vietnam, Goldstein, now 56, maintained from the start that he was innocent. He was released 16 months ago after five federal judges ruled that his constitutional rights had been violated. A state court judge dismissed the charges against him "in furtherance of justice."
That judge cited a lack of evidence against Goldstein and the "cancerous nature" of the case.
Prosecutors sat mute in the courtroom during Goldstein's trial when jailhouse informant Edward F. Fink lied in testifying that he was getting nothing in return for his testimony, court records show.
In reality, Fink received significant benefits for his testimony, a point emphasized by federal judges who overturned Goldstein's conviction. Prosecutors dropped one case against Fink and reduced charges in another. Fink, who had three felony convictions and a heroin habit, was arrested at least 35 times, including 14 times in Long Beach. He died in 1994.
Goldstein asserted in his civil rights suit that the district attorney had violated his constitutional rights by having a policy and practice of "using confessions obtained by jailhouse informants which were false and fabricated."
The suit also contended that the district attorney's office had a policy of "failing to disseminate" information within the office "about the benefits jailhouse informants receive in exchange for assistance in securing convictions."
Goldstein's attorneys also asserted that the county "failed to create a system and failed to train deputy district attorneys who handle jailhouse informants" despite being aware of "the obvious risks of not creating such a system."
Moreover, the suit alleged that in the late 1970s, before Goldstein's prosecution and 1980 conviction, "two prosecutorial agencies conducted inquiries into claims by a jailhouse informant that he knew of improper conduct by" district attorney's office personnel "with regard to confessions allegedly made to a jailhouse informant."
Those inquiries and the conclusions that the agencies reached were "never indexed or widely distributed" within the district attorney's office, "and subsequently the informant served repeatedly as a witness in criminal trials." The informants were not identified in the suit.
Even before Goldstein was prosecuted, his attorneys asserted, the district attorney's office "considered the creation of a system to track the benefits provided to jailhouse informants and other impeachment information, but no such system was instituted."
"This has far-reaching implications," said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who sat on a blue-ribbon commission that reviewed the operations of the district attorney's office in the mid-1990s.
Matz's ruling could "really shake things up" in the district attorney's office, she said. "This is open season on looking into how they handle disclosure and other ethical issues."
Gordon said she had once obtained a court order that gave her access to secret information grand jurors saw when they were investigating jailhouse informants. But before she could look at it, prosecutors dismissed the case against her client.
"There is information in transcripts sitting in a safe that is relevant to the claims in this case," Gordon said. Matz's ruling, she said, gives Goldstein's lawyers "a clear shot" at obtaining that material.
In another part of his ruling, Matz dismissed claims that Deputy Dist. Attys. Ann Ingalls and Patrick Connolly kept Goldstein incarcerated after a federal appeals court ordered him released pending a possible retrial. Matz ruled that the prosecutors were immune from the suit.