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Long Beach to pay nearly $8 million to man who was in prison for 24 years on wrongful murder conviction

August 11, 2010 |  7:09 pm

The city of Long Beach agreed Wednesday to pay nearly $8 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a man who spent 24 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder based largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant.

Thomas L. Goldstein was convicted in the 1979 shotgun slaying of John McGinest in Long Beach. Edward Fink, the informant, testified that Goldstein confessed to the murder while they were in Long Beach City Jail. 

A judge overturned the conviction more than a dozen years later because of Fink's credibility problems as well as prosecutors' failure to tell Goldstein's attorney that they had cut a deal to go easy on Fink in a separate criminal case.

Goldstein, a Marine Corps veteran, was freed in 2004. He sued the Los Angeles County prosecutors involved in his case, contending officials regularly used jailhouse informants and did not take steps to make sure they were telling the truth.

Barry Litt, who represented Goldstein in the civil case, said the settlement was important because it held authorities accountable for failing to provide all the information that could have aided in his client's defense. 

"In Tom’s case, the information the authorities suppressed would have led to his acquittal instead of his conviction," Litt said. "Their conduct resulted in Tom spending 24 years in some of the worst prisons in the whole country, years he never should have spent and can never recover."

Monte Machit, principal deputy city attorney for Long Beach, said that despite the settlement, Long Beach authorities deny that Goldstein was wrongfully arrested or that his constitutional rights were violated.

"The city's settlement is a product of the cost of defending the case through trial and the possibility that if Goldstein did prevail, the verdict could be quite sizable at a time that every municipal entity is financially strapped," Machit said.

He added that the city did not have the opportunity to cross-examine key witnesses in the case, including one man who "was suffering from serious mental problems [at the time he recanted] and was vulnerable to suggestion."

Goldstein was living in Long Beach when he was arrested in a shooting in an alley near his home. Several witnesses gave conflicting descriptions of a suspect. Some identified the gunman as black and one witness told investigators it was Goldstein, who is white.

Fink, a heroin addict who investigators placed in a Long Beach City Jail cell with Goldstein, testified that Goldstein confessed to the murder while they were locked up together.

After Goldstein's conviction, it was revealed that a number of people in law enforcement had doubts about Fink's credibility. The other key witness against him would later recant his testimony.

A 1990 grand jury investigation documented prosecutors' widespread abuse of false testimony by jailhouse informants in Los Angeles County during the 1970s and '80s.

After his release, Goldstein sued the Los Angeles County district attorney's office for his wrongful imprisonment. He alleged that top prosecutors had failed to develop policies and procedures regarding jailhouse informants, and failed to adequately train and supervise their subordinates regarding that information.

But the U.S. Supreme Court last year threw out the lawsuit, ruling that district attorneys are immune from wrongful conviction suits. Attorneys for Goldstein also sued Long Beach; it was that suit that was settled Wednesday.

-- Andrew Blankstein