Goethals screws his face up into a portrait of intense concentration. "I don't find [Coppola] particularly credible," he says. "He says, 'I have a difficult time remembering details, but I remember one time driving up Beach Boulevard and seeing this nice car and stealing it.'"

Equally dubious to Goethals is the prison-yard meeting a decade later. "You don't see Mr. Coppola for 11 years, and you have this fortuitous meeting in this prison yard, and when he can no longer be tried for the crime, he confesses."

Although Crawford has pointed out that Coppola risks a perjury conviction by confessing to the robbery, Goethals is clearly suspicious of the timing of the confession, given that it arrived just after the statute of limitations for auto theft has expired. It doesn't help matters that Cargill can provide no proof he ever made any effort to find the man who happened to be giving him a ride in a BMW the night of his arrest, but who apparently went unnoticed by all the witnesses who testified against Cargill. (After Coppola confessed to Cargill, both Cargill and his parents signed declarations stating that they had tried to locate Coppola to testify in the original trial, but that they couldn't find him without knowing his true surname.)

Paul J. Coppola
Paul J. Coppola

But more suspicious than all that, to Goethals at least, is the prison-yard meeting. To Goethals, it has the distinctive whiff of a work of fiction, namely the scene in Shawshank Redemption in which the protagonist learns from a fellow prisoner that another man has bragged in convincing, unimpeachable detail about the murder that put him behind bars. "It's one of my favorite movies," Goethals says. "That scene is the only one where I was scratching my head."

Dispassionately, Goethals then announces that he will not grant Cargill's request for a new trial. "When I began looking at your case, I was hoping I could grant you relief," he says. "Eventually, we are going to have to release three-strikers. I don't know if that will affect you, but maybe you will be one of them. Good luck to you, Mr. Cargill."

Cargill is dumbstruck, frozen in his seat. Crawford whispers in his ear as Molfetta walks out of the courtroom. Goethals stands up, watching Cargill trying to come up with a last-minute line of argument. But Goethals is having none of it. "We're done here," he says. "It's time go, Mr. Cargill."

*   *   *

At press time, Thomas Cargill was on his way back to Pleasant Valley State Prison, where he has spent the past 14 years for stealing the BMW; he will not be eligible for parole until 2019. For his part, Coppola, who has been out of prison for only a few months, says he can't understand why Goethals didn't find him to be a credible witness.

"I don't know why the judge would think I was bullshitting for somebody I just met," he says. "I just wish everything had worked out, and Thomas would get out, and it would be headline news, but now they are going to make me look like a liar."

Coppola says he never considered whether the statute of limitations had expired on the crime, but that he was prepared to go back to jail if necessary. "I discussed it with my family," he says, "and they said, we don't want you to go back, but if need be, you have to do the right thing." He thought that testifying on Cargill's behalf would make granting him a new trial a "slam-dunk" case.

Meanwhile, he says, he's busy working as a roof installer and trying to keep clean. "I promised my mom I'd never go back to jail," he says. "That's why I'm staying with her at the moment because I'm trying not to fall back into my old ways. I don't need no monkey on my back."

Confessing to the crime that put Cargill away for life is part of the process. He continues to insist he's the real thief. "When I saw him in prison, I told him I was going to straighten this out," he says. "Why should he be in prison for something that wasn't his doing?"


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