L.A. County May Be Liable for Shaky Snitch

     (CN) – A man who spent 24 years in prison based largely on the testimony of a drug-addicted snitch may have a case against Los Angeles County, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
     California district attorneys work for the county, not the state, when “adopting and implementing internal policies and procedures related to the use of jailhouse informants,” and therefore are not necessarily immune from civil rights claims, the federal appeals court in Pasadena found.
     The ruling breathes new life into the long-running case of Thomas Goldstein, a man tried and convicted for a murder in Long Beach in 1979. With no other evidence against the former Marine save shaky eyewitness testimony that was later recanted, prosecutors relied heavily on the word of jailhouse snitch Edward Fink, whom circuit Judge Sidney Thomas described as “aptronymic.” In other words, aptly named.
     Fink, a heroin addict who had testified for prosecutors to his own benefit before, said Goldstein had confessed to killing a man over money.
     Goldstein got out in 2004, after it came out that Fink had lied on the stand, and that some prosecutors in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office “allegedly knew about Fink’s history, but failed to inform the prosecutors trying Goldstein’s case or Goldstein’s counsel that Fink had testified before or that he received a benefit for testifying,” according to the court’s 34-page ruling.
     Goldstein filed a civil suit against several governments and officials, claiming that they had failed to reveal the possibly exculpatory facts about Fink, and had neglected to establish an information system to keep track of informants.
     The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010 that Goldstein settled with the city of Long Beach for $8 million. He has not been as lucrative, however, in trying to hold the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office responsible for all that lost time. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed his claims against former Los Angeles County district attorney John Van de Kamp and former chief deputy district attorney Curt Livesay, based on absolute immunity.
     On remand from the high court, U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz found that county officials were immune from civil actions when setting policy related to jailhouse informants. Hatz ruled that, as state officials, district attorneys cannot be sued for such policymaking.
     A three-judge appellate panel unanimously reversed Wednesday, finding that, district attorneys represent the county when it comes to administrative policies and training, “including the establishment of an index containing information regarding the use of jailhouse informants.”
     “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,” Judge Thomas wrote for the panel.
     The county had argued that the Supreme Court’s previous ruling made the present issue a foregone conclusion. The high court had said that Goldstein’s claims had fatally focused “upon a certain kind of administrative obligation – a kind that itself is directly connected with the conduct of a trial.”
     Thomas wrote that the issue is different because “the Supreme Court did not look to or examine California law, but focused on common-law traditions and policy implications in determining that the district attorney was entitled to absolute immunity.”
     “Even taking into account the control and supervisory powers of the attorney general, the Los Angeles County district attorney represents the county when establishing policy and training related to the use of jailhouse informants,” he added. “Therefore, a cause of action may lie against the County under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”
     In a partial concurrence, Judge Stephen Reinhardt highlighted the damage done by Fink in the case of Thomas Thompson, who in 1998 “was executed on the basis of Fink’s perjured testimony.”
     “Although Thompson was executed as a result of Fink’s perjury … the innocent Mr. Goldstein was fortunate enough to avoid that fate,” Reinhardt wrote. “He now seeks civil damages for spending twenty-four years of his life in prison, as a result of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office’s failure to adopt necessary and reasonable internal administrative policies and procedures. I agree that he is entitled to pursue his claim.”

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