Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Supreme Court Holds Prosecutors Immune from Using False Snitch Testimony to Gain Wrongful Conviction

Supreme Court Holds Prosecutors Immune from Using False Snitch Testimony to Gain Wrongful Conviction

by John E. Dannenberg

On March 28, 2007, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a California man, wrongfully imprisoned for 24 years due to unreliable jailhouse informant testimony, could sue the prosecutor for civil damages for failing to set forth policies that would prevent such false convictions. Prosecutors are normally absolutely immune from suit within the scope of their professional duties.

Thomas Lee Goldstein was convicted of murder in 1980. Although he maintained his innocence, he was found guilty based largely on the testimony of appropriately-named repeat-snitch Edward Fink, who claimed Goldstein had confessed to him when they were held in the Long Beach, California jail. Goldstein’s conviction was overturned by a federal court in 2004 due to Fink’s lack of credibility as well as the exposure of an undisclosed side deal by the prosecutor to be lenient in Fink’s own prosecution.

Following his release, Goldstein worked as a paralegal; he sued for violation of his civil rights using the novel theory that the prosecutor had no procedures or policies in place regarding the use of jailhouse informants. The prosecutor predictably claimed that he was absolutely immune for any errors he may have committed during Goldstein’s prosecution.
The Los Angeles Grand Jury had found in 1990 that widespread false jailhouse snitch testimony was used by Los Angeles prosecutors during the 1970s and 1980s. Fink himself was a three-time felon at the time of Goldstein’s trial – and his testimony was even doubted by the Long Beach police.

One defendant named in Goldstein’s suit, former Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp, who today ironically chairs the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, urged the state legislature to limit the use of jailhouse snitches.
State Senator Gloria Romero obliged by introducing a bill barring convictions based upon such testimony unless corroborated by independent evidence. That bill, SB 609, was passed by the state legislature but vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in October 2007.

Current Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley expressed concern over the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, saying it “strips away a long-established protection for prosecutors.” But this was an overreaction. In the appellate decision, Judge Thelton E. Henderson (sitting by designation) noted that prosecutors do not enjoy immunity for misadvising police during an investigation or for making public statements about criminal proceedings. The key test for prosecutorial immunity is whether the prosecutor’s challenged act is “intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.”

The appellate court found that the failure to create a policy regarding the proper use of jailhouse snitches, which was an administrative act, did not rise to that level. See: Goldstein v. City of Long Beach, 481 F.3d 1170 (9th Cir. 2007).

The U.S. Supreme Court granted review and unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit on January 26, 2009. The Court found that the defendants in Goldstein’s suit were entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity, holding that such immunity extended to claims involving failure to train prosecutors, failure to supervise prosecutors, and failure to “establish an information system containing potential impeachment material about informants.”

The Court quoted former Chief Judge Learned Hand, who had opined in reference to granting absolute immunity to prosecutors, “[I]t has been thought in the end better ... to leave unredressed the wrongs done by dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duty to the constant dread of retaliation.”

Which may all be well and good in theory. But in practice, Goldstein spent 24 years in prison due to the improper actions of the prosecutor in his case, and he now has no remedy at law – which simply adds insult to injury. See: Van De Kamp v. Goldstein, 2009 U.S. LEXIS 1003 (2009).

Additional source: New York Times

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Van De Kamp v. Goldstein

Goldstein v. City of Long Beach