It took a Long Beach Superior Court judge two minutes to free Thomas Lee Goldstein on April 2, releasing him after almost a quarter century behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. The white-haired former Marine from Kansas mourned a lifetime of missed opportunities.
"I was 31 years old. I never got married. I never had children. I never started my career. No human being should have to suffer what I went through," Goldstein said.
Goldstein, 55, has since filed claims against the city of Long Beach and Los Angeles County for his wrongful conviction in the 1979 shotgun slaying of a Long Beach man.
He alleges in the claims that the Long Beach Police Department and the District Attorney's Office fabricated evidence and used an unreliable jailhouse snitch to convict him in 1980. No amount was specified for possible damages.
H. Anthony Nicklin, principal deputy county counsel, said that his office has 45 days to address Goldstein's claim, but would make no other remarks.
"We don't comment on ongoing litigation," Nicklin told The Journal.
Goldstein was not available for comment.
Long Beach City Attorney Robert Shannon is investigating whether Goldstein can file a second claim after Goldstein failed to follow up on a $2 million claim he filed against the city while still incarcerated in 1998.
Dave McLane of Kay, McLane and Bendnarski, the Pasadena firm representing Goldstein, anticipates that both claims will eventually be rejected.
"We'd like to negotiate in good faith, but we've seen no willingness to do so," he said.
Jailed in such maximum-security facilities as Folsom and San Quentin, Goldstein also states that he was subjected to assault, harassment and discrimination due to his Jewish heritage.
"He had a rough go of it in prison," McLane said. "There wasn't a group he could turn to."
After being harassed by white supremacists and gang members, Goldstein tattooed a Star of David on his left forearm, took off his shirt one day and walked around the prison yard.
"That was his way of saying 'Don't mess with me,'" McLane said.
Back in November 1979, Goldstein was an honorably discharged Vietnam vet studying mechanical engineering at Long Beach City College.
"He had trouble adjusting to life after the war," said McLane, adding that Goldstein "had a drinking problem, but he has overcome that."
Goldstein had never met the victim, John McGinest, 25, who was killed with four blasts from a shotgun on the night of Nov. 3, 1979.
Thirteen days later, police arrested Goldstein, who lived near the murder scene in a rented garage. Loran Campbell, the trial's only eyewitness, told police he saw a man carrying a shotgun run by his home. He identified Goldstein at the trial, but later recanted his testimony during a 2002 appeal before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Campbell died soon after recanting.
Other testimony came from a jailhouse informant, Edward Fink, a heroin addict who was later found to have lied about jailhouse confessions from Goldstein and suspects in nine other cases in order to obtain a reduced and a dropped sentence.
The prosecution was never able to produce the murder weapon that could link Goldstein to the crime.
Goldstein's conviction was subsequently overturned in December 2003 by a panel of the 9th Circuit Court, which found that the District Attorney's Office violated his constitutional rights during the 1980 trial. But a challenge by the District Attorney's Office kept Goldstein in prison for another four months, until Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Pierce refused to retry the case based on Campbell's false testimony.
Rather than being angry and bitter since his release, Goldstein has been scared and insecure.
Goldstein spent his first full day of freedom at a Law Library and the Central Library downtown, because it's where he felt most comfortable. While in prison, Goldstein spent as much time as possible in the prison's law library studying for appeals.
"His sole focus for 24 years was getting out of prison," McLane said.
Goldstein also kept up with his Jewish studies. According to Rabbi Menachem Katz of The Aleph Institute, a Chabad-affiliated group that works with Jewish prisoners, Goldstein requested a few books and received regular mailings from the organization when he was in Pleasant Valley State Prison.
When Pleasant Valley didn't hold a Passover seder in 2001, Goldstein filed a complaint with Aleph's Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar.
Al Bonea, Pleasant Valley's correctional business manager, said that the institution has had trouble attracting a regular rabbi since the last one retired in 2001.
McLane confirmed that Goldstein's faith is important to him.
"He attended a couple seders when he got out," he said.
Goldstein returned to Topeka, Kan., to visit his mother and other family members after Passover, but the claims and the possibility of a future multimillion-dollar lawsuit will likely keep him tied to Southern California, where he is currently staying in the home of a Jewish couple.
"Rage is not fueling his desire," McLane said. "He's been wronged, and the only way to make it right is to pay him for the damage they've caused."