Blaming Erie County officials and the news media for ruining his chance to start a new life in Buffalo, former Texas death-row inmate Robert E. Kleasen today took his case to federal court for trial of a $2.5 million lawsuit.
Kleasen, 56, is accusing County Executive Gorski and Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins of waging a "campaign of hate, disinformation and fear" in an effort to make him leave Buffalo after he moved here on parole in the spring of 1988.
An attorney for the county officials denied the charge in an opening statement when the jury trial began late this morning.
During a brief interview shortly before the trial began, Kleasen blamed Gorski, Higgins and the news media for ruining what he had hoped would be a new start on life in the Buffalo area.
Kleasen said he is disabled and lives alone "in hiding" in Buffalo, with no activities.
"You've all spread so much poison about me, there's no way I'll ever have a normal life," he said.
Asked about his social life, he said: "I have none."
"Buffalo hasn't exactly been the City of Good Neighbors to him," said Kleasen's lawyer, David G. Jay.
James Tuppen, lead attorney for the county officials, said Higgins and Gorski acted "reasonably and responsibly" in questioning why a dangerous ex-con was being moved to Buffalo.
The decision of state Parole Board officials to move Kleason to Buffalo raised a countywide uproar in May 1988.
Kleason was convicted in the 1970s of the murders and dismemberments of two Mormon missionaries in Texas, but the convictions were overturned by an appeals court that cited the use of defective search warrants by police.
Gorski and Higgins protested unsuccessfully in State Supreme Court after Kleason was moved to Buffalo by state parole officials in 1988, following Kleason's prison term for the wounding of a Wayne County man.
In a lawsuit filed in December 1988, Kleason accused the two county officials of fanning "white-hot public opinion" in an effort to force him to move out of Buffalo.
In an opening statement before U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin, Jay acknowledged that Kleason "is a guy who has been in trouble a lot," but accused county officials of robbing him of his legal right to live in peace in Buffalo.
Jay said he will prove in the trial that Gorski and Higgins harassed Kleason by taking him to court and demanding that he be examined by psychiatrists at both the Erie County Medical Center and the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
The attitude of the county officials is summed up by the phrase "not in my back yard," Jay told the six-member jury.
"If every county in New York State was able to say, 'I don't want this guy in my back yard,' what would happen to the parolee?" Jay said.
County lawyers Tuppen and Kenneth Schoetz said Higgins and Gorski were correct to question parole officials about their reasons for moving Kleason to Buffalo.
Under the parole board's usual procedures, a parolee being released from prison is returned to the community where he was tried and convicted for his crime, Tuppen told the jury. But in this case, he said, community pressure in Wayne County and Rochester prompted parole officials to make a sudden decision to put Kleason in Buffalo, where he had lived in the 1960s.
Higgins and Gorski were concerned for the safety of county residents because of Kleason's long criminal record, his dangerous psychiatric profile and his known "expertise with firearms and explosives," Tuppen said.
Tuppen said it was the duty of Gorski and Higgins to attempt to find out exactly why parole officials "caved in" to pressure from Rochester and moved Kleason to Buffalo.
"They were also concerned that parole might do this again, and make Erie County and Buffalo a dumping ground for parolees not wanted elsewhere in the state," Tuppen told the jury.
Higgins was expected to testify late this afternoon.