Isidore Zimmerman spent 24 years and 10 months in prison for a crime he did not commit. After escaping the electric chair by two hours, he entered a 10-year period of rebellion in which he was beaten and confined to solitary in a series of prisons. During his remaining years of incarceration he joined inmates Pewee Weiss and Mike Golding to become the legendary "jail-house lawyers" known as "The Saints of Dannemora."
In 1962, Zimmerman was freed after he proved that the prosecutor in his case had knowingly used prejured testimony to obtain his conviction. Now a doorman in Manhattan with a take-home pay of $210 a week, Zimmerman is seeking the right to sue the State of New York for $10 million in damages. The legislature is expected to vote on his case this week.
It was 7 a.m. in the lobby of Riverview East, and Izzy Zimmerman had been telling his story for two hours. He was up to the strip cell at Dannemora -- the part where the angel visited him in his misery and bitterness to reveal that his purpose in life was to help other prisoners, men who were less intelligent and capable than he.
"You know," Zimmerman said, his Lower East Side vernacular quavering for a moment, "it's a wonder I can speak calmly about all this. My wife says, 'Izzy, don't worry about it. Put it out of your mind, let's live our life.' But every so often I get an overwhelming feeling. I have to get up and walk it off."
But Zimmerman's tale is his life, and in a moment he was reliving it again.
"After I came out of the box, I joined Peewee and Mike in the yard at Dannemora. I had learned a little about shystering in the Auburn days, but Peewee just gave me a copy of the New York criminal statutes and said I should start memorizing them.
"The other men kidded us about being jail-house lawyers, but actually there was a tremendous respect for us, and we were protected. This was because we held out hope for the other inmates, and every day there was a long line for the lawyers, with some men waiting as much as a couple of months just to have us review their situation.
"This was right under the nose of the warden, and it drove him crazy. You weren't even allowed to have law books, and we had hundreds of them. There was a cell search and a frisk going on almost every day looking for the contraband law books, and it was a 'box bitch' to get caught with one.
"What we did was, we took all the law books and cut them up into maybe 30 sections. Then we got 30 guys and gave each of them a section. We buried some of the sections in the prison yard, or hid them other places, but mostly the 30 guys would carry them around under their shirt. If somebody had a case calling for four sections of a law book, we would pass the word -- Kaiser, Cohen, Mahoney, Goldstein. Then when we were finished, the sections would vanish with them again.
"People were always getting caught with pieces of a book, and getting sent to the box. But at least this way we only lost a section. A lot of people were on our side. There was Father Rocco DeNardo, a priest in the prison who helped us, and a couple of guards who would smuggle out the writs, and a nun from the outside named Sister Mary Rose who did research for us. All this drove the warden nuts. At other prisons, the lawyers would write by hand on pieces of paper. But our stuff went out all neatly typed. That's because we used the warden's own typewriter."
The "Saints" used the same tricks over and over again. One of their favorite involved convicts who had been given up to 30 years under mandatory-sentencing requirements for "second felony" offenders. Often, Izzy, Mike and Peewee would find that although the inmate's first offense was a felony in the state where it was committed, it was only a misdemeanor in New York State. In such cases, inmates were often released immediately on the basis of time served.
Of the 700 convicts freed by their efforts, perhaps the most dramatic was a case that came to Zimmerman on Feb. 5, 1953 -- his 35th birthday.
"I ran into this new kid in the yard, he had only arrived there that day. He was real young and kind of retarded. He had been sentenced to 2 1/2 to five years for carrying a knife. A blunt knife, a bread knife or something like that. He didn't pull it on anybody, he was just carrying it. But it's not against the law in New York to carry a knife for defensive purposes. So that very day we did a writ for the kid. Father Rocco took it to a judge in Plattsburgh. The judge was furious, chewed up the DA, and the very next day this kid was out on the street again. I thought like a hardened con at the time, but getting that kid out brought tears to my eyes.
"This judge was really amazed with us. He sent word to Peewee and Mike and me that if we ever got out of prison, he wanted the four of us to start a law firm together."
The constant interviewing, researching and writing of convict cases kept Zimmerman occupied, and made prison slightly more bearable. The problems of others, he found, helped keep his mind off his own.
"I guess what I missed most in all those years was love," Zimmerman recalled. "I don't mean sexual love, exactly, although there is no substitute for the love of a woman. I mean just touching somebody, just holding them in your arms. When Mom and Pop came to visit, there were wires between us. I couldn't even hug or embrace my mother or father. I was starved for their love. And of course, you never really grow up in prison. You don't change. You are the same age when you come out that you were when you go in.
"The hardest thing was when my mother died, in 1959, after trying so hard to get me out over the years. A family never tells prisoners when anybody is sick, so as not to worry them. Sometimes they would let you go to your mother's funeral, but my family didn't even ask me, because they were too embarrassed. Another guy in my neighborhood had been brought home for a funeral, and they made him stand there in handcuffs, with a guard next to him, like he was on display. I didn't blame my family for not wanting that."
"The Saints of Dannemora," so named in a proclamation honoring them signed by 2,000 inmates, held court for more than 15 years.Mike Golding died of a heart attack in Greenhaven State Prison. Peewee Weiss was eventually released on parole, and became a consultant to lawyers in California. In February 1962, acting on a writ initiated by Weiss, the New York Court of Appeals set aside the conviction of Isidore Zimmerman and freed him from jail. In March 1967, the Supreme Court of the County of New York dismissed his original indictment.
Zimmerman later told the story of his life, with the details of his career in jail-house law, to Joseph M. Sauter and Sheldon Abend. Their book, "The Guardians -- The True Story of the Saints of Dannemora," was published by Zebra Books in 1979. The Prosecutor's Crusade
What got Izzy Zimmerman out of jail at last was a writ of Corum Nobis. Such a writ asks that a case be reconsidered in the light of new evidence. The new evidence was proof that Danny Rose and Harry Copperman, the key prosecution witnesses against him, had lied when they implicated Zimmerman in the murder of Detective Michael J. Foley on April 10, 1937, in the Boulevard Restaurant. And that the prosecutor, Jacob J. Rosenblum, knew it.
"Over the years," Zimmerman's present lawyer, Alfred Fabricant, explained, "Izzy's family had been trying to round up Rose and Cooperman, and get them to recant. Eventually Rose did, although they could never find Cooperman.
"What Rose said when he finally came forward was that he had told the prosecutor Rosenblum three separate times, prior to the trial, that Zimmerman had nothing at all to do with the robbery of the Boulevard Restaurant. Rose said he had obtained the gun for the killers, not Izzy.
On Jan. 1, 1962, Charles S. Desmond, then chief judge of the Court of Appeals, in the opinion that freed Zimmerman, wrote: ". . . the witness Rose, called in behalf of the people, falsely denied upon cross-examination that he had made any statements in the presence of a district attorney's stenographer more than a week before the trial." In fact, Desmond said, Rose had made three such statements, "containing material inconsistencies." The failure of the prosecutor to correct this falsehood and to afford the court or defense counsel an opportunity to examine those statements, which were in his possession, in effect amounted to a suppression of such material and prejudiced the defendant in his right to a fair trial."
Fabricant: "After Rose had been given immunity from prosecution, he changed his testimony and said Izzy did it. So the prosecutor knew all along that Rose's testimony was perjured. Rose later said that Rosenblum had coerced and forced him into implicating Zimmerman. The candy store owner Tevyeh, who had testified against him, said the same thing."
If there was pressure on Rose to testify that Zimmerman was guilty, there was also pressure on Rosenblum to obtain convictions for all five of the "East Side Boys" he had charged with the crime. Rosenblum's boss was Thomas E. Dewey, whose campaign against crime made almost daily headlines in the late 1930s in New York.Dewey, who would go on to be governor, and to run a close race against Harry Truman for the presidency of the United States, released this message to the press on the day of Zimmerman's conviction, April 14, 1938:
"Robbery with a gun and murder are at last becoming unsafe in New York County. There have been eight convictions for murder in the first degree in this county so far this year, as compared with two convictions for murder in the first degree for the entire year of 1937."
Without Izzy Zimmerman, the count would have been seven.
But why prosecute Zimmerman and not Rose?
"The only thing we can assume is the Sullivan connection," Fabricant said. Sullivan was the cellmate Zimmerman declined to testify to beating up. Without an explanation for the beating, Sullivan's jury was persuaded that Sullivan's confession had been extracted by unlawful police methods, and acquitted him. Rosenblum, the prosecutor, thus lost his case.
Jacob J. Rosenblum retired as chief of Dewey's homicide bureau at the end of 1941. During his four-year tenure, he effected 22 of the 51 first-degree murder convictions won by the district attorney's office, and was a key figure in the war against organized crime begun by Dewey in 1935. He ended his career in private practice in 1956, for reasons of health.Rosenblum died in 1971 at the age of 73. A Friendship Blooms
During Zimmerman's years of imprisonment, his mother had often written him about Ruth, a childhood friend who felt bad when she heard that Izzy had received a "Dear John" letter on death row, and who always believed him to be innocent and was standing by him.
"I just wrote back, 'Tell her to get lost,'" Zimmerman recalled. "I don't want some old bag around when I get back. So at first, when Ruth came by the house they wouldn't let her in. And she'd say, Please, Mama, send this to Beansy." Eventually, however, Ruth became a close friend of the family, supporting his parents' continual battles to free their son. But Izzy did not think much about Ruth in jail. The fact was that he could not remember what she looked like.
"But after I got out, I figured what the hell, I'll look her up. But she wouldn't see me. Mad, I guess. But I get it set up that we'll get together at a restaurant, and I decided to take my friend Jakey with me. I said to Jakey, 'Listen, we go in together, okay? And if a big fat floozy dame comes in and asks for me, you go out one door and I'll go out the other.' Then Ruth came in, and I couldn't believe my eyes, because she's beautiful. Right away I turned to my friend. 'Hey, what are you doing here?Get out of here right away and leave us alone.'"
Zimmerman was 44 years old when he was released from prison. He and Ruth were married two years later. It was a disappointment that they were unable to have children.
"We tried for a long time to adopt a baby," Zimmerman said. "But it was impossible, because I had spent all that time in prison. They felt I was unsuitable.
"I would like for you to meet my Ruth," he said to his visitor in the lobby of Riverview East, at 7:30 a.m. "But I cannot bring you home. She would become upset. We try to keep our privacy. There are still phone calls, even after all these years. 'Is this where the Jew lives and who murdered the Irish detective?'" A History of Vetoes
The bill now before the New York State legislature, if passed, will permit Isidore Zimmerman to sue the state for damages arising from his loss of income and opportunity during incarceration and for the mental anguish caused by imprisonment for a crime he did not commit.
A similar bill has been passed before on Zimmerman's behalf -- in 1969, 1970 and 1971.
That act stated that "the conviction of Isidore Zimmerman was based on the deliberate suppression of testimony by the prosecutor demonstrative of the innocence of Isidore Zimmerman and the knowing use of perjured testimony by the prosecutor . . ."
The bill then went to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. He vetoed it in 1969, in 1970 and in 1971.
In his veto message, the governor conceded wrongdoing on the part of the prosecutor, but still found an out for the state.
"A district attorney is not a 'state officer' and the state, therefore, is not liable for his acts on the theory of respondeat superior . The proper defendant, if any, is New York County," Rockefeller wrote.
Furthermore, Rockefeller said, two previous acts passed involved persons wrongfully imprisoned because they were victims of mistaken identity. "These actions were based on a moral obligation of the state and conformed to the standard pronounced by Gov. Dewey in his memo of approval . . . dated April 9, 1946.
"In essence, under this standard, the facts should be such that a pardon on the grounds of original innocence would be in order. Facts in the present bill do not meet this test.
"If this bill were approved the result would be to establish a precedent substantially broadening the state's moral obligation to a point beyond reason."
So once again, it was a standard set by Thomas E. Dewey to which Isidore Zimmerman failed to conform. Zimmerman, unlike two previous cases, had not been technically declared innocent. Instead, the state had declared the prosecutor guilty of using perjured testimony to frame him.
"Saying the prosecutor is not a state official is pretty hard to understand," Alfred Fabricant says with some irony, "considering that the title of Izzy's case was "The People of the State of New York vs. Isidor Zimmerman. And the way I read the Corum Nobis , the state not only found Izzy innocent, but found the prosecutor guilty of affirmative wrongdoing."
Rockefeller, as is traditional in such matters, received advice from his state attorney general in the matter of the Isidore Zimmerman case. The attorney general who recommended against Zimmerman was Louis J. Lefkowitz.
Lefkowitz, in 1938, had been the attorney of record for Dominick Guariglia, who had gone to the electric chair for the murder of Detective Foley, the same electric chair that Zimmerman narrowly missed.
According to Zimmerman, he went to see Lefkowitz after he got out of jail, and "Lefkowitz told me he'd believed I was innocent all along. But then after he became attorney general, he denied it."
Reached at his home on Park Avenue in New York, Lefkowitz denied ever giving such an opinion to Zimmerman. "I barely remember him, it was so long ago. Is he still trying to get jurisdiction? He says I said he was innocent? Well I never did say any such thing. Otherwise, I have no specific recollection."
The attorney general's recommendation to Rockefeller was issued over Lefkowitz's name. Asked if he should have disqualified himself because of his involvement with the case of co-defendant Guariglia, he said:
"The attorney general's office gives the governor a memo on everything. But only on the legality, the constitutionality. I could have said leave me out, I was in on the trial. Maybe I did. I have no independent recollection of this at all, really. That's a lot of years ago, isn't it?"
In his conversation, however, Lefkowitz was able to correct a reporter on one count, when asked about the Boulevard Restaurant. "Oh yes," he said, "that's where Mike Foley was shot. But it was the Boulevard Cafe . Over on Second Avenue, right?" Alienating the Legislators?
"As a practical matter," Fabricant said, "what we hope will happen is that the assembly will pass Izzy's bill this week, because the session is ending. And I think they will.
"But you know, the assemblymen are quite interested in getting the death penalty restored, and Izzy is strongly against it. He says if there was a death penalty, he wouldn't be here today. When the New York Civil Liberties Union asked him to go to Albany and speak out against the death penalty bill, he went.
"As his lawyer, I had to tell him, 'Izzy, by doing that, you might alienate the legislators who are going to vote on your bill. The majority of them favor the death penalty bill, it's only Gov. Carey who vetoes it.' But Izzy went up there anyhow.
"The next step would be for Gov. Carey to pass the Zimmerman act. That would allow us to sue for damages, and ask for the $10 million. It would mean a jury trial, which would delve into the wrongdoing of a district attorney, and go on for some time.I'm hoping that the attorney general's office will want to settle out of court, and avoid all of that. Yes, I think Mr. Zimmerman would be willing to settle. He does not want a long procedure." 'I'm Still a Loser'
It was approaching 8 a.m. in the lobby of the Riverview East. Residents passed through in a steady stream, greeting Izzy the doorman, who was getting increasingly nervous.
"If I get rich it will be a help," he said of his bill. "I am impoverished now, and it would mean that Ruth and I would not have to worry about paying the rent. I would feel, really, that God had given me a second chance, because it's hard not to be bitter. I want to give the members of my family a tidy sum, because they suffered along with me, trying to get me out. And it would mean helping a lot more ex-cons, through the little organization I started called 'League for Another Chance.'" He is also a co-founder of the Fortune Society, which seeks to assist exoffenders in rejoining society.
Eventually, Zimmerman made it clear that his visitor should leave, so as not to be seen by a representative of his employer. He says his boss, Harold M. Gottlieb, doesn't like him.
"This comes from my original application, where I wrote down that I had no prison record. Which is true, I've got no prison record, even though I was in prison 25 years. They already demoted me from Dorchester Towers, which is a Class A building, with higher pay, to this building, which is a Class C building, with lower pay under the union rules. I want a chance to get off the midnight-to-8 o'clock shift, but . . . they keep me on it."
Last week, the dispute between Zimmerman and his employer once again went to arbitration, and once again his bid to move off the night shift failed. "I'm a loser again. I'm still a loser," he said.
Gottlieb, reached at his office in Dorchester Towers, declined to discuss Isidore Zimmerman. "The matter is in arbitration, I don't want to talk about it."
Asked if Zimmerman had not just lost his case, taking it out of active arbitration, Gottlieb replied: "No, he keeps making up new ones, and he keeps losing them." The Act to Come
The New York State legislature would like to conclude its session tomorrow. That way, the senators and assemblymen would be able to go home for the long Fourth of July weekend, and recess until Jan. 1. The closing days of a legislative session are traditionally frantic and long. Bills rise up and meet their fate quickly. So, again, will Isidore Zimmerman, whose act comes to the floor in both houses tomorrow.
According to Sen. Emmanuel Gold of Forest Hills, the primary sponsor of the Zimmerman act, "It's very difficult to say at this point whether the bill will pass. I'm the deputy minority leader, and I'm in the hot seat. We have a Republican majority in the senate, and things get extremely political near the close of the session, as we are now.
"We are pushing the bill on its merits. Unfortunately, we're too political in this state, and its merits may not be enough."