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 (who wrote that Mr. Gordon had changed the lives of many mentally ill prisoners), was a letter from a former superintendent at Fishkill Correctional Facility, in Beacon, N.Y. The superintendent, Leroy Fields, noted that in his more than 37 years as a corrections official, Mr. Gordon was only the second inmate he had ever recommended for release. Joseph 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 Mr. 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. Mr. Gordon, who is Black, was convicted of the 1991 murder of a white Westchester County doctor. His refusal to admit guilt, the parole panels ruled, showed that he lacked remorse for his crime.
It is a conundrum faced by scores of prisoners who insist they’re 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.”
Mr. 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 Mr. Gordon’s home in Elmsford, N.Y., 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 Dr. 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. “I was led to believe it was an unwanted sexual encounter,” he added, “and that’s the end of that part of it for me, because I’m not going to disparage Dr. Pack. I’m not going to try in any way to sully his reputation.”
Citing Mr. 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 just 16 at the time. The hearing transcript shows that he moaned, “Oh, God,” as he told how he had returned home to find that Chad had shot Dr. Pack during an argument over a secret sexual relationship between them. He didn’t call the police because of fear of what could befall his son in prison. “I didn’t trust to do that,” he said at his March hearing. “I didn’t trust the system, society. I didn’t trust any of it. All I know is I wanted to take care of my son.”
He voiced regret for the suffering endured by the doctor’s family. “To this day I am sorry that he died,” he said of Dr. Pack. “The pain that this caused his wife is unimaginable. I can’t even speak to it. All I can say to you is that I am sorry. I can’t change it. If I could, I would. I have tried to do everything in here that I could.”
At each hearing, commissioners cited the jury’s verdict at his 1993 trial, where Mr. Gordon was convicted of shooting Dr. 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 Mr. Gordon’s defense had offered “a concocted story of a homosexual argument … that underscored the coldblooded and ruthless nature of this crime.” As he sent Mr. Gordon to prison, the judge told him he “did not deserve to walk free in society ever again.”
These days Mr. Gordon walks with a slight shuffle. Guards at Fishkill refer to him as “old man Gordon.” He is on his second pacemaker and spent several weeks in the hospital last winter. A short, trim man, he still carries some of the military bearing he acquired while serving two combat tours with the Air Force in Vietnam.
The military taught him computer skills, and in civilian life he found work at large corporations. While living in California in the 1970s, he married a woman and had a son. They separated when the child was not yet 2. Mr. Gordon moved back east and settled in Elmsford, where he grew up. Chad remained with his mother in California, visiting his dad on holidays.
Mr. Gordon began trading baseball cards, he said, in a bid to draw closer to his son, who was a fan. 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. Mr. Gordon enrolled him in a Catholic high school and put him to work in the afternoons at the sports memorabilia shop he operated in Rockland County. It was on one of those afternoons, Dec. 20, 1991, Mr. Gordon said in an interview at the prison, that he asked his son to wait at home to hand off a package of money and cards to Dr. Pack, with whom he had been investing in collectible baseball cards over the previous year.
After dropping off his son at the house, Mr. Gordon, recalling the story he told the parole board, said he drove to his shop to find several anguished messages on his answering machine from Chad begging him to come home. He raced back to find his son in the basement, Dr. Pack’s body nearby. “Chad couldn’t talk,” he said. “Neither could I.” His actions over the next hours, he said, were driven by panic over what would happen to his son if he was arrested. “I saw him going through every ugly scene in every prison movie I’d ever watched,” he said. He remembers also thinking that while his son couldn’t handle prison, an ex-soldier might be able to.
Though his lawyers would outright accuse Chad of killing the doctor at the trial, Mr. Gordon had never wanted to say it out loud himself. Arrested and charged with murder, Mr. Gordon refused to take the stand. “I was not going to be compelled to testify against my son,” he explained. “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, Dr. Pack had gone to Mr. Gordon’s house to confront him over some $70,000 he had invested in baseball cards. Dr. Pack, the prosecutor said, “never got a penny” from his investment. Although there was no evidence that the men had previously quarreled, Mr. Rooney said that rather than pay him back, Mr. Gordon killed him that day in his own home.
Testimony confirmed that the doctor was killed in Mr. Gordon’s basement, where fragments from Dr. 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 Dr. 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 Mr. Gordon was his son.
He had been stunned to learn his son was testifying against him. “Chad was scared,” Mr. Gordon said in the interview. “He forgot who his father was, and that his father would never allow anything to hurt him.”
On the witness stand, Chad said that on the day Dr. Pack was killed, his father picked him up at school at 2:30 and dropped him off at the store. He said he worked there and at a nearby food stand until late that night, as his father came and went several times. He arrived home to find police officers looking for Dr. Pack.
Over the next few days, he told the jury, his father repainted the basement floor and installed new carpeting in the trunk of his car, where an odor like “old meat” lingered. He said his father told him to lie to the police about Mr. Gordon’s whereabouts on the day of the murder, as well as about a pistol Mr. Gordon kept in the house. The gun was never found, but the police maintained it was the murder weapon.
Representing Mr. Gordon was William Kunstler, the fiery radical attorney, and his associate, Ron Kuby. The lawyers were recruited by local civil rights activists who feared that, as a Black man accused of killing a white man, Mr. Gordon wouldn’t receive a fair trial. Mr. Gordon said his lawyers assured him that they could question Chad about the killing without putting the son in legal jeopardy. That would allow the jury to hear an alternative explanation for the murder, the lawyers said.
In cross-examining Chad Gordon, Mr. Kunstler attempted what he called “a Perry Mason”: abruptly and loudly accusing the witness of shooting the doctor. “You know whose sperm was in Dr. Pack’s mouth, don’t you?” he demanded. “It was yours, wasn’t it?” The teenager denied it, but Mr. Kunstler pressed on: “Will you now tell the jury the truth? Who murdered Dr. Pack? It was you, wasn’t it?”
Before leaving the witness stand in tears, Chad angrily repeated his denial. “This is an outrage,” he said. “I did not kill Dr. Pack.”
The jury deliberated for a day before finding Mr. Gordon guilty. Reached in California, where he lives, Chad Gordon said he still believed in his father’s guilt and denied any involvement in Dr. Pack’s death. “My father is a sociopath,” he said before hanging up. His mother did not respond to messages. Mr. Kunstler died in 1995. “I always believed a terrible injustice was done in Joseph Gordon’s case,” Mr. Kuby said.
In prison, Mr. Gordon sought repeatedly to have the semen analyzed using new genetic tests. In 1996, three years after his conviction, an article about his appeals caught the eye of a woman who had lived across the street from Mr. Gordon at the time of the murder. The neighbor, Elizabeth Deerr, said that she had not told her story to the 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 at about 3:30 on the afternoon of the murder, as she was watching her children play outside, she saw Mr. 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 Gordon at the entrance of the home. Ms. Deerr saw Chad directing the man to the back of the house. She never saw Chad or the man leave the house or Mr. Gordon return.
Citing the affidavit, Mr. Gordon filed a new appeal. The judge who had presided at the trial denied it. In an interview, Ms. 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, Mr. Gordon asked the Innocence Project, the 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 wasn’t until 2015 that conclusive findings emerged: Neither Mr. Gordon nor his son was the source of the semen. Experts also determined that it could not have been deposited after Dr. Pack’s death.
To Mr. Gordon and his lawyers at the Innocence Project, the new findings added credibility to his assertion that Dr. Pack had sex with men and disproved the assertion by the prosecutor at his trial that Mr. Gordon had placed the semen there himself.
Mr. Gordon’s persistence impressed Christopher York, the former chief assistant at the Putnam County district attorney’s office, who handled the requests for the DNA testing. Mr. York, a career prosecutor, wrote to the parole board in January. He took no position on Mr. Gordon’s guilt or innocence, he wrote, but added, “In my view it would be inappropriate to deny Mr. Gordon — or any other applicant — release from prison for asserting his or her actual innocence.”
Parole boards, however, regard assertions of innocence with skepticism. “There is a very strong presumption that claiming innocence is a sign of denial,” said Daniel S. Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University who wrote a 2008 study titled “The Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma.”
One solution to that dilemma, Mr. Medwed’s study found, is to falsely admit guilt. John Ramsey, a Brooklyn man who spent 33 years in prison after his conviction for a 1981 murder during the robbery of a drug den, claims he did just that. Mr. Ramsey repeatedly told the parole board that he was innocent, having been convicted on the word of a single witness who admitted he had spent the day smoking angel dust. After being denied parole six times, Mr. Ramsey reversed course and was released in 2015.
“I just admitted it,” Mr. Ramsey said. “I was never getting out if I say it wasn’t me,” he said.
Kevin Smith, who served 27 years for murder, did the same. At his initial parole hearing, Mr. Smith insisted that he had been wrongly convicted of a 1984 shooting in Brooklyn. He changed his position after his mother fell ill. “I couldn’t stomach saying I did it, at first,” he said. “But I went back before the board and made a false admission.” Approved for parole, he returned home in 2012 in time to see his mother before she died.
Since their release, both Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Smith have tried to get their original convictions overturned. Their parole board confessions have complicated those efforts. In 2019, a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge dismissed Mr. Ramsey’s request for a new trial, citing his admission of guilt to the board. He is appealing the decision.
Mr. Gordon said he always knew his story would be difficult for the parole board to accept, and he initially considered falsely admitting guilt. “My plan was to go in to the board and say I did it, take full responsibility,” he said. He rejected the idea after being warned against it by a doctor with whom he worked in programs for mentally ill prisoners. “He said, ‘That would be a lie, and you don’t lie,’” Mr. Gordon said.
The parole boards have cited “extensive and vehement community opposition” to Mr. Gordon’s release. Dr. Pack’s widow, Margit Pack, has steadily advocated for Mr. Gordon to remain in prison. “Daniel Pack will never get out of the grave, and I hope Joseph Gordon never gets out of jail,” Ms. Pack said after the conviction.
The current district attorney of Putnam County, Robert Tendy, who took office in 2016, has also strenuously opposed his release. Last year, Mr. Tendy wrote to the board saying that he had reviewed the case file and concluded that Mr. Gordon was involved in “a continuing charade.” Mr. Gordon, the district attorney wrote, used “a naïve doctor as a cash cow — scamming him out of tens of thousands of dollars,” and then killing him when confronted about the scheme.
In an interview, the district attorney said that he was most disturbed by Mr. Gordon’s explanation of the crime. “The most offensive thing to me,” he said, “is that he is trying to blame it on his own son and also trying to turn Dr. Pack into a child molester.” Mr. Gordon remains a threat to society, he said, despite his advanced age. “It is not just the physical threat,” Mr. Tendy said. “It is a threat that this person will be given a soapbox to preach his innocence and become part of the ever-growing movement to undermine the justice system. There is a lot of it going around these days.”
Mr. Gordon said he had no interest in mounting any soapboxes. This month, he faces his sixth parole board hearing, and he will tell the panel his plan: if released, he will live quietly in the Putnam County home of his current wife, whom he married more than 20 years ago after meeting her while she was teaching prisoners. He will do part-time community work if he’s able, he said.
In the meantime, he is working as a grievance counselor, representing prisoners on medical and other issues. “What do I want to do, lay around all day doing nothing?” he said. “That doesn’t work.”
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 Mr. Gordon.
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