Manhattan, 5 a.m., East 22nd Street lies immobilized under its street lights. In the predawn quiet, a pool of light spills from the glass front lobby of the Riverview East apartment building. Behind the glass, a solitary figure leans against a counter, waiting for the midnight shift to end.
The door rattles. Isidore Zimmerman pulls on his doorman's coat and turns the key. At 63, he has the demeanor of a charismatic delicatessen proprietor: eager but savvy. His nickname formerly was Beansy, but now it is Izzy. One eye is a little skewed, the result of an elevator accident. The elevator was at Attica State Prison, and the result was not really an accident.
"Gee," Zimmerman said, opening the door."Come in. Sit down. You got time, right? It's a long story. It's 24 years and 10 months. The whole middle of my life."
Isidore Zimmerman spent the middle of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The crime was the murder, in the early hours of April 10, 1937, of police detective Michael J. Foley in the Boulevard Restaurant at 144 Second Ave. in Manhattan. Three men entered the restaurant at about 2 o'clock, intending to relieve the patrons of their wallets. Detective Foley was sitting at a table. There was an exchange of gunfire. Foley wounded one of the intruders, but was himself shot and killed.
Five young men, dubbed "The East Side Boys" by the press, were found guilty of the crime and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Zimmerman was one of them. He spent nine months on death row. His head was shaved and his pant leg slit. Two hours before the switch was to be thrown. Gov. Herbert H. Lehman commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.
Justice had been swift, but there was a rub. The rub was that Beansy Zimmerman was not guilty. Zimmerman, a tough kid from the lower East Side, had been framed by an ambitious district attorney. It took him 24 years and 10 months to prove it, and when he did, they let him out of jail. His original indictment was dismissed, meaning that the State of New York conceded that he had been guilty of no crime.
For his first 10 years of imprisonment, Zimmerman was an incorrigible inmate, continually beaten and isolated and limited to bread and water. During his subsequent 14 years he became a legend, one of three remarkable self-taught jail house lawyers who came to be known as the "Saints of Dannemora." Isidore Zimmerman had intended all along to become a lawyer, but events have prevented him from accomplishing that goal. As a doorman at Riverview East, his take-home pay is $210 a week. He used to have a better doorman's job, but was demoted. He says he's been at odds for years with his boss, Harold M. Gottlieb.
At odds: Isidore Zimmerman's odyssey from schoolboy athlete to death row inmate to legendary jailhouse lawyer to embattled doorman is a Homeric tale told in an East Side accent. In a lifetime of matching his will against the wiles of fate, he has achieved vindication, but not victory. Still at odds, he waits one last roll of the dice from Albany.
It is difficult to put a value on what the state wrongfully took from Isidore Zimmerman, who was 19 when he went in and 44 when he came out.
Difficult, but not impossible. For Zimmerman and his lawyer, the figure of $10 million springs to mind. Before week's end, the New York State legislature will vote on whether he deserves the opportunity to collect. s Coat and Arms
Izzy Zimmerman sat down at the table in the lobby, looking over his shoulder a bit defensively. "There's a couple stool pigeons in this building would be glad to say they saw the doorman sitting down," he said. Then, with a shrug, he began to talk.
"It was the evening of April 9, 1937. What should have been a great day but was instead a terrible day.I was standing in a hallway, kissing a girl. We were celebrating my acceptance to Columbia University on a football scholarship. I had been a real superstar at Seward Park High School, where three of us comprised the entire line. We were so good that's all of us it took.
"Anyhow, after I said good night to her I walked a couple of blocks and I ran into Danny Rose. 'Hey Beansy,' he says, 'are you going to Tevyeh's candy store? If you see Footke there, I loaned him my hat and coat and you could bring it back for me.' We all hung out at Tevyeh's and I saw Footke there, and when I came back, I threw the hat and coat to Rose. I didn't think any more about it.
"A couple of months later, I came home to find my mother highly agitated. The police were looking for me. 'What are you worried about,' I said, 'I'll go over to the precinct house myself. I did nothing wrong.'
"When I got there, the cops said: 'Do you know Rose? We know you carried a hat, a coat and a gun to him.' I said, 'Obviously it's a lie.' So one cop hits me, then the other, and being the rough-and-ready kid that I was, pretty soon I'm mixing it up with four of them and I wind up in a cell.
"But they let me out and I went home, and a lawyer from the Tammany Club came to see me. The next guy at the door was Harry Cooperman, alias Popeye. 'I'm the guy the cops want,' he said, right in front of the lawyer. 'I loaned the gun to those guys.' By now I realize it was the weapon used in the killing of Detective Foley.
"By the next morning, however, the instinct for self-preservation being what it is, Cooperman has implicated me. I'm arrested and thrown in the Tombs. After about a week I get a roommate, but when they dump him in the cell his head is all swollen up and one ear is hanging off. His name is Sullivan, and he is arrested in another murder case and has confessed to the crime. I felt sorry for the guy, so I nursed him back to health, so that in a week or so he resembled a human being again.
"A while later the assistant district attorney calls me in. He is Jacob J. Rosenblum, the head of Thomas E. Dewey's homicide squad. There's a big anticrime wave going on at this time, and Dewey wants convictions, convictions, convictions.
"'Okay,' Rosenblum says, 'you didn't do anything, so you can go home. But before you go you have to testify that Sullivan was all right when he was put in your cell, and that you inflicted those injuries upon him yourself.'
"I said, 'Look, Mr. Rosenblum, you're asking me to perjure myself?' 'No, just confirming how you will testify,' he said. Because, of course, it was the cops who had beaten Sullivan up. They would do anything to get a confession, hang guys over hot radiators and things like that. Dewey was a real crusader.
"So Sullivan came to trail, and I was the big witness, called by his lawyers. Did I beat him up? No, I said, I did not beat Sullivan up, and I didn't know who did. But Sullivan's lawyers said it was the cops who beat him up, to get the confession. So on the basis of my testimony, the jury threw out Sullivan's confession and he got acquitted. By the way, six months later they caught the real killer in that case and he was executed.Sullivan was very grateful to me and promised to help my people on the outside. He did okay, actually becoming a pier boss after his release, but he never did one thing for my family. Seven years later he got in a fight in a bar and was killed. But that's another story.
"The thing is, I could have walked out free and clear if I'd testified like they told me. Instead, I got Rosenblum very furious. He told me that I had lost a big murder case for him, and that I would pay for it.
"See, the only witnesses against me were Rose and Cooperman, who had confessed to helping plan the robbery, and had been granted immunity by Rosenblum in exchange for thier testimony. The three guys were actually in on the shooting -- Dominick Guarigglia, Joseph O'Laughlin and Arthur Friedman -- said they didn't even know me. So for corrobration, Rosenblum got the candy store owner to say he'd seen me talking to Rose and Cooperman the day the robbery was planned. I couldn't believe what was going on."
The case came to trial. All five of the "East Side Boys" were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. According to The New York Times of April 15, 1937, news of their sentence "was received by them with a pretense of unconcern." The Forgotten Man
Zimmerman's current lawyer is Alfred Fabricant, of the New York law firm of Shea and Gould, which has a staff of 165 attorneys. Fabricant, 27, knows the case well from its mammoth file.
"They really had a weak case against Izzy from the start," Fabricant said. "First of all, the two people who testified against him were coconspirators. That kind of testimony is always suspect, and always has to be corrobrated. The only corroboration came from Tevyeh, the candy store owner, who said that he had seen Izzy talking with some of the other defendants on the day the crime was planned.
"But the biggest injustice, and what really railroaded him, was that he was tried along with the others. This was a pretty sensational crime, a shootout, and there wasn't much doubt about the outcome. During all the damning material that came out about the other men, the jury saw Izzy sitting there, too. His own case only came up during one day of the trial -- the business about the hat and coat. He was really the forgotten man."
The state had agreed not to prosecute Rose and Cooperman, but prosecutor Roseblum pressed hard for the conviction of the five "East Side Boys." Exactly how hard he had pressed in the case of Isidore Zimmerman would not be revealed for another 24 years and 10 months. Faces of Death
The day after the "East Side Boys" were sentenced, they were transferred to the death house at Sing Sing. Again, The Times reported that "on the train to Ossining they simulated unconcern about their sentence."
"I was frightened to death," Zimmerman recalled, "and believe me, I thought I was a tough kid. I was only 19 years old, and I had always been a fighter, taking the Italian or the Irish if they came into the Jewish ghetto. My father was a presser of suits and my mother was a janitor, but we also had a fruit cart. I helped out with the cart, but I wasn't much good selling fruit because I was always reading a book. I was going to be the first in the family to go to college. I had never been arrested before, and I had certainly never anticipated death at such a tender age.
"I was in the death house for nine months, and during that time 13 men left their cells and never came back, so I had to get used to the idea of dying. Eventually, I wanted to die myself.
"You can't imagine what being with prisoners like that does to your mind. One of the men had murdered his wife. She was real good-looking, and he was extremely jealous, and he caught her with another guy and killed her. At least you could understand that. But there was another guy who had killed his own mother. Him we ostracized, even in the death house. Another convict was a child molester, he'd molested this little girl and then when he'd finished doing whatever it was, he ate part of her body. He was also ostracized. One other guy was completely insane, obviously didn't know right from wrong. Still another was only 17 years old and obviously retarded, but they let him die anyhow. This kid told me it was okay. He said he was getting three square meals a day for the first time in his life, and the priest said he was going to a better world, so who's complaining?
"These were the kind of people I lived with for nine months.However, even on death row there were at least two innocent men. Me, and another fellow who I found out about in this way:
"Two guys were sentenced to the electric chair for killing a jeweler. There names were Gatti and Sberne. One day they came to me and said, 'What should we do? Sberne is actually innocent.' My advice was to write the district attorney and see what happened. So the DA came to see them -- it was this same man, Jacob J. Rosenblum.
"Gatti says to him, 'Look, I did it, but Sberne here didn't do anything.' Gatti says, 'You do?' Rosenblum says, 'Of course. However, the jury convicted him. All you have to do is tell me the name of the guy that was really with you, and Sberne here can go home.' But Gatti was a Sicilian, and he couldn't tell the name. It would have disgraced Gatti's family. So Sberne was electrocuted. A young guard overheard this whole conversation in Gatti's cell. He couldn't believe that Rosenblum would let a man die knowing that he was innocent. Some time later people got interested in knowing this guard's name, maybe as a witness. I just couldn't remember it. He was just a kid and I never got to know him."
Zimmerman's first reaction to death row had been fear, but it turned to rage. He wrote to Gov. Lehman, demanding to be pardoned immediately or executed immediately. The waiting was tearing his family apart. One day, when the postponing appeals were almost exhausted, he received a letter from the girl he had been kissing in the hallway on the evening of the hat and the coat. She was Irish and he was Jewish, but still he had dreamed of marrying her. In the letter, his girl explained that she was breaking off their relationship.
"Getting a 'Dear John' letter in the death house is really rough," Zimmerman said."But I didn't care, because by that time I was ready to die."
On Jan. 26, 1939, Isidore Zimmerman was preped for the electric chair and given his last meal of steak and ice cream. O'Loughlin, Guariglia and Friedman went to their deaths. Two hours before it was Zimmerman's turn, the government commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, along with that of Philip Chaleff, the "lookout" convicted in the case.
"When they told me, I flew into a rage," Zimmerman said. "I couldn't conceive of a life in prison which I had done nothing to deserve. It seemed much worse then death. I couldn't conceive of Mom and Pop spending every nickel on lawyers the rest of their lives. I screamed at the guards. 'You better kill me, you bastards! Because one way or another I'm going to die. Either you kill me, or I'll kill you, so help me God.'" Recompense for Adulthood
"When you get to know him," Fabricant was saying, "you find that Izzy has an incredible natural intelligence. What hides it sometimes is that he is a man who learned everything he knows in prisons. His speaking habits, his eating habits, even the way he walks.He lived his life among convicts, and it has given him a rough exterior, even though he has been out for 18 years. He's got arthritis and he's a diabetic. He's broke, yes. He had had three sets of lawyers over the years, all of them quite good, all working pro bono. Our firm does not expect to be paid, and we do not even have a contingency agreement with him.
"But we believe that Izzy should be compensated, and the $10 million figure is not unreasonable. We compensate people every day for the loss of an arm or a leg, or the loss of a life. Izzy lost more than his arms. He lost his prime adulthood.
"It is difficult to sue the state, however, because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The state will waive that right for tort claims such as damage caused by a pothole in the road, but for wrongful imprisonment it will not. For that, you need an act passed by the state legislature. We have that bill before the legislature now. As a matter of fact, such a bill has been passed on his behalf three times before, in 1969, 1970 and 1971. It was vetoed each time by Gov. Rockefeller. We believe that this bill will pass, and that Gov. Carey will not veto it, and that we will win our suit for damages."
Compensation for wrongful imprisonment is rare in the United States, although such compensation is a tradition in Scandinavian countries, according to Yale Kamisar, a professor of criminal law at the University of Michigan.
"First of all," Kamisar said, "most people who get out are just happy to get out, and let it go at that. There are very few cases of clearly established wrongful conviction. Besides, how do you measure the compensation? This is an age where states have no money, they can't even afford to build prisons, and legislators are reluctant to go along with these bills. There's certainly no doctrine. Everything is case by case."
In 1948, a man was awarded $148,000 by the State of New York after being wrongfully imprisoned on a charge of forgery. In 1980, a California man named Juan Venegas, who had served 2 1/2 years for a murder he did not commit, was awarded $1 million in what is believed to be the first jury verdict in California for such a case. In the Venegas case, a bartender later recanted his testimony, saying he had been pressured by police. b
"I think Izzy's claim is equal to or greater than either of those two cases," Fabricant said. "And don't forget, in his case there is a finding of affirmative wrongdoing on the part of a state official, and that is an egregious harm." Always in Trouble
By 6 a.m. it was light outside the Riverview East. The traffic rumbled louder. Newspapers were delivered and freed by Zimmerman from their wire bindings. A woman emerged from the elevator and clicked through the lobby in high heels, dragging a miniature dog across the smooth floor. She stopped to greet the doorman. Then she clicked on, the dog still balking.
"That is a stubborn dog," Zimmerman said admiringly. Then he turned away from the light and back to his story.
"The sentence of natural life began what was for me 10 years of constant rebellion," he said. "During that time I was a man searching for death. I fought all the time, because I didn't care. When the guards beat me with their clubs I would laugh at them. I was a maniac. The strip cells became my natural habitat, and I was living my life on bread and water."
After making trouble at Sing Sing, he was transferred to the state prison at Auburn. There he was surprised to find that two pals from his old neighborhood, Peewee Weiss and Mike Golding, were also serving life sentences. Golding and Weiss (both pseudonyms) had begun to study jailhouse law as apprentices to a more experienced lifer-counselor. They offered Beansy Zimmerman a partnership in their "firm." For a month or so he reveled in his luck, savoring the first real friendships in penitentiary life. Prison regulations forbade prisoners to assist each other in legal matters, however, and when the efforts of Weiss and Golding were discovered, they were abruptly transferred to separate institutions.
Zimmerman reacted characteristically. In the yard the next day, he attacked a guard who had taunted him with the news. Beaten senseless by other guards, he was remanded to an isolation cell for 30 days on bread and water. Released, he got in another brutal fight, and was thrown in solitary again. Zimmerman, it was noted, just didn't seem to care what happened to him. Of the eight years he spent at Auburn, three were in isolation.
Next stop, Attica. Zimmerman briefly became the star player on the prison football team, but after three months was again involved in a fight with a guard. The isolation cells at Attica were reached by an elevator. The elevator was known among the inmates as "the bucket of blood." Zimmerman was escorted into the elevator by four guards. When he emerged from it he had a concussion, 90 percent loss of sight in his right eye and internal injuries that required hospital treatment for eight months. He was under observation by doctors for three more years. He never played football again.
In 1950, Greenhaven. In 1951, Dannemora. There, to his delight, he found himself reunited with Peewee and Mike, who had become leaders among the inmates and who carried on a flourishing legal practice under the nose of the prison warden. Zimmerman also found that his reputation as an incorrigible had preceded him.
Almost immediately he was challenged by a guard, and responded with his fists. And once again, he awoke lying in his own blood, severely injured, in the darkness of a strip cell.
A prisoner placed in a strip cell at Dannemora in those days was first relieved of all his clothing. The cell contained no bed or furniture or plumbing. The prisoner slept and relieved himself on the concrete floor. He was not permitted to leave the cell, or to have visitors, or reading material, or light, or to speak. Twice a day he was fed two pieces of bread and a cup of water, with a hot meal served every third day. Once a week a guard placed a fire hose through a hole in his door and hosed down the prisoner and the floor of the cell. Waste material ran out under the door and was carried away in an open trough.
Zimmerman remained in the strip cell at Dannemora for 87 days.
"Many times I wished I had the courage to kill myself . . ." he said, his voice suddenly dropping, ". . . but I was a tough guy, you know? They thought I would be dead when they opened the door after 87 days, but I wasn't. I was as tough as the guards. The guards were a breed that existed only in prison towns. Guards whose fathers had been guards, and passed down all the hatred and racism and frustration. Extremely sadistic men, who considered the inmates their natural enemy. When you're on bread and water, you're supposed to get a hot meal every three days. My first hot meal at the strip cell in Dannemora, the guard holds it out to me and spits in it. 'I spiced it up a little for you, Jewboy,' he says. So I threw it at him. I never could touch the hot meals again after that.
"But this was going to be the end of my 10 years of rebellion. It's going to seem funny to you, but in that strip cell, lying on the concrete floor naked and covered in my own filth, I had a visit from an angel. The angel told me that I had been put in prison for a purpose, which was to help those less fortunate than me. I didn't think there was a less fortunate condition than mine, but the angel went on, and said: 'You are about to be released to the general population.' This meant I would go back among the regular inmates, and could get packages again, and go out in the yard and smell the air, which was very pure at Dannemora. 'A young boy will be released to you for your help,' the angel said.
"Later on I told a psychiatrist about this angel, and he said that my mind was merely working to correct an intolerable situation.
"Whatever, the next thing I know I'm being led to the showers, and getting my filthy beard shaved off, and I'm back in general population just like the angel said. A kid I don't know comes up and asks if he can talk to me.
"'Nah,' I said, 'get out of here. I don't know you. Get lost.'
"But he said his wife was divorcing him, and all he wanted was that I should write a letter to her for him expressing how he felt. I remembered what the angel said, so I did it. I wrote a love letter to his wife. Can you believe that? A love letter? And what do you know, but it worked. On account of the letter, she didn't leave him. After that, I decided I would go ahead and live, and help other people as best I could, like the angel said. g