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He says he’s no murderer, that’s why he’s still in prison

It was the fifth parole denial that Gordon had received since 2017, when he completed the minimum term of his sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

By: New York Times |
December 5, 2021 2:22:38 pm
“The person that committed the murder was young, very young at that time, and I did what I did in order to protect that person,” he said at his first appearance before the board, in 2017.(Representational image)

Written by Tom Robbins

When Joseph Gordon, a 78-year-old man who has spent nearly three decades in prison for murder, went before the New York state parole board in March, among the letters supporting his bid for freedom was an extraordinary appeal.

In addition to endorsements from corrections officers, civilian prison employees and a psychiatric social worker was a letter from a former superintendent at Fishkill Correctional Facility, in Beacon, New York. The superintendent, Leroy Fields, noted that in his more than 37 years as a corrections official, Gordon was only the second inmate he had ever recommended for release. Gordon, he wrote, has “the character and moral compass to return to society as a productive member of his community.”

The parole board remained unpersuaded. “Your release at this time is not compatible with the welfare of society,” the panel ruled, “and would so deprecate the serious nature of your crime as to undermine respect for the law.” It was the fifth parole denial that Gordon had received since 2017, when he completed the minimum term of his sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

In their decisions, board members focused chiefly on a single and apparently unforgivable flaw: He insists he is innocent of the crime that sent him to prison. Gordon, who is Black, was convicted of the 1991 murder of a white Westchester County doctor. His refusal to admit guilt, the parole panel ruled, showed that he lacked remorse for his crime.

It is a conundrum faced by scores of prisoners who insist they are not guilty. “The board expects them to accept responsibility and express remorse,” said Michelle Lewin, executive director of the Parole Preparation Project. “People who maintain their innocence remain in an impossible situation.”

Gordon’s situation may be more impossible than most. He admits that after Dr. Daniel Pack, a 38-year-old neurologist with a wife and two young children, was shot to death in the basement of Gordon’s home in Elmsford, New York, he covered up the murder. He admits to hiding the body in a remote wooded area in Putnam County and ditching the doctor’s car in a New Jersey parking lot. But he insists that he did not kill Pack. He has long hesitated to say who did and why.

“The person that committed the murder was young, very young at that time, and I did what I did in order to protect that person,” he said at his first appearance before the board, in 2017.

Citing Gordon’s “lack of full disclosure,” the board rejected him. At his next hearing, and for the first time in more than 25 years, he personally identified the shooter: It was his son, Chad, he said, who was 16 at the time. Gordon said he had returned home to find Chad had shot Pack during an argument over a secret sexual relationship between them. He did not call police because he feared what could befall his son in prison.

At each hearing, commissioners cited the jury’s verdict at his 1993 trial, where Gordon was convicted of shooting Pack during what prosecutors said was a fight over thousands of dollars they had invested together in rare baseball cards. Parole commissioners quoted Judge John Sweeny Jr.’s comments at sentencing that Gordon’s defense had offered “a concocted story of a homosexual argument … that underscored the coldblooded and ruthless nature of this crime.”

While living in California in the 1970s, Gordon married a woman and had a son. They separated when the child was not yet 2. Gordon moved back east and settled in Elmsford, where he had grown up. Chad remained with his mother in California, visiting his dad on holidays.

Gordon began trading baseball cards, he said, in a bid to draw closer to his son. In 1991, however, Chad forged a grade on his school report card, and his parents decided he should live with his father for a while. Gordon enrolled him in a Catholic high school and put him to work at the sports memorabilia shop he operated in Rockland County. It was on one of those afternoons, Dec. 20, 1991, Gordon said, that he asked his son to wait at home to hand off a package of money and cards to Pack, with whom he had been investing in collectible baseball cards over the previous year.

After dropping off his son at the house, Gordon said he drove to his shop to find several messages on his answering machine from Chad begging him to come home. He raced back to find his son in the basement, Pack’s body nearby. His actions over the next hours, he said, were driven by panic over what would happen to his son if he was arrested.

Although his lawyers would outright accuse Chad of killing the doctor at the trial, Gordon had never wanted to say it himself and refused to take the stand. “I was not going to be compelled to testify against my son,” he said. “I was not going to put my son in prison.”

The prosecution presented the case as a simple fight over money. District Attorney James Rooney argued that on the day he was killed, Pack had gone to Gordon’s house to confront him over some $70,000 he had invested in baseball cards. Pack, the prosecutor said, “never got a penny” from his investment. Rooney said that rather than pay him back, Gordon killed him.

Testimony confirmed that the doctor was killed in Gordon’s basement, where fragments from Pack’s eyeglasses were found. The one shred of forensic evidence at odds with the prosecution’s account was the presence of a small amount of semen that an autopsy found in Pack’s mouth. At the time, however, the amount was too small to determine the source. The most likely explanation, the district attorney told the jury, was that the semen had been deposited there by “the last person to see Dr. Pack alive” — meaning the defendant — in a bizarre bid to confuse investigators.

But the most powerful witness against Gordon was his son.

On the witness stand, Chad said that on the day Pack was killed, his father picked him up at school at 2:30 p.m. and dropped him off at the store. He said he worked there and at a nearby food stand until late that night.

The jury deliberated for a day before finding Gordon guilty. Reached in California, where he lives, Chad Gordon said he still believed in his father’s guilt and denied any involvement in Pack’s death. “My father is a sociopath,” he said before hanging up. His mother did not respond to messages.

In 1996, three years after his conviction, an article about Gordon’s appeals caught the eye of a woman who had lived across the street from him at the time of the murder. The neighbor, Elizabeth Deerr, said she had not told her story to police at the time because her mother-in-law, whose house she lived in, warned her not to get involved.

In an affidavit filed with the court in December 1996, she said that about 3:30 p.m. on the day of the murder, she saw Gordon drop off his son at his home, then drive away. Fifteen minutes later, she saw a “white fancy car” pull up. A tall, thin white man emerged and was met by Chad at the entrance of the home. Deerr saw Chad directing the man to the back of the house. She never saw Chad or the man leave the house or Gordon return.

Citing the affidavit, Gordon filed a new appeal. The judge who had presided at the trial denied it. Deerr, who is white, said she regretted not coming forward earlier. “I always hoped he would get another trial and I could tell my story,” she said. “Things could’ve been different for Joe.”

In 2003, Gordon asked the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization specializing in DNA analysis, to take up his case. The project’s lawyers pressed the Putnam County district attorney’s office to allow experts to examine the semen. The office eventually agreed, but repeated tests failed to produce results. It was not until 2015 that conclusive findings emerged: Neither Gordon nor his son was the source of the semen. Experts also determined it could not have been deposited after Pack’s death.

To Gordon and his lawyers at the Innocence Project, the new findings added credibility to his assertion that Pack had sex with men and disproved the assertion by the prosecutor at his trial that Gordon had placed the semen there himself.

The parole board has cited “extensive and vehement community opposition” to Gordon’s release. Pack’s widow, Margit Pack, has steadily advocated for Gordon to remain in prison. “Daniel Pack will never get out of the grave, and I hope Joseph Gordon never gets out of jail,” she said after the conviction.

This month, Gordon faces his sixth parole board hearing.

In the meantime, he is working as a grievance counselor, representing prisoners on medical and other issues.

As he sat talking to a visitor recently, a passing officer gave the prisoner a rare seal of approval. “This guy’s top-notch,” the guard said, gesturing at Gordon.

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