The view from the 84th floor courtroom in the World Trade Center is of a sparkling Manhattan spring, but the view from the witness chair is of a bleak winter of the memory--the 25 years that Isidore Zimmerman spent behind bars for a murder he did not commit.
"When you arrived at Sing Sing in 1939, where did they put you?" asked Milton Gould, founder of Shea and Gould, the large law firm that is pressing Zimmerman's claim for an unprecedented $10 million damage award from the State of New York.
"Describe what it was like," said Gould.
"There was at all times a vast trembling of my body. I endured a constant mental picture of the electric chair. I could not sleep. Whenever I lay down I would gasp for breath."
"Did other inmates go to the electric chair while you were there?"
"Yes," answered Zimmerman. "And I shook hands and wished them well wherever they were going. Most had to be carried to the dance hall."
"Dance hall?" asked Gould.
"The pre-execution cell," Zimmerman said. "There was a Victrola there, they played any record you wanted within reason. I said goodbye to 13 men."
Shortly thereafter Zimmerman sobbed briefly.
Zimmerman had been sentenced to death as one of five "East Side Boys" who had been found guilty of the murder of police detective Michael J. Foley on April 10, 1937. After nine months on Death Row, three of Zimmerman's codefendants were electrocuted; the fourth's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Zimmerman's sentence also was commuted to life, two hours before his time was to come. His head had been shaved and he had eaten his last meal of steak and ice cream. He had asked for blintzes as well but the kitchen did not know how to prepare them.
Exhibit after exhibit of prison records from the 1940s and 1950s was introduced to chronicle Zimmerman's incarceration. The State of New York has conceded that Zimmerman was convicted on perjured testimony and that an assistant prosecutor intentionally suppressed evidence that would have cleared him. The New York legislature has passed a law permitting Zimmerman damages that it concedes it must pay.
But what is the proper payment for what Zimmerman calls "the whole middle of my life"? He recently has turned down an offer of $1 million tax-free. He is 64, and suffers from Cushing's disease (a disorder of the tissues and muscles), high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes and blindness in one eye.
The state does not want to pay $10 million. "I am here to minimize the expense of the state," said Frank Miller after yesterday's court session closed. He is an assistant state attorney general with the right of cross-examination.
The last time the State of New York paid a former inmate for wrongful imprisonment was in 1955. The amount was $155,000. In California in 1981, a man wrongfully imprisoned for two years was paid $2 million in damages. Zimmerman has held out to the last for his full claim.
Zimmerman testified today that after his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, he wanted to die. "I did not want to go on and spend my life in prison as an innocent man under those circumstances."
A strong current of Zimmerman's experience with anti-Semitism ran through his testimony today. At Auburn State Prison, where he was transferred, a guard called him a "kike Jew bastard." They fought, he was subdued by other guards and remanded to a strip cell. In 1939, Zimmerman said, a strip cell was a room without light, furnishings or toilet equipment, in which a prisoner was kept naked and fed bread and water twice a day. Hygiene was provided by a weekly hosing down through a hole in the cell door.
Later a kitchen employe called Zimmerman a Jew bastard, he testified. He fought, and was sentenced to 63 days in isolation. A captain of guards called him a "troublemaking Jew." Zimmerman struck him, was subdued and was hospitalized for 2 1/2 months.
"Describe what happened next," said Gould.
"I was beaten every day for 30 days. Guards would bet how many blows it would take to knock me out. They played tic-tac-toe on my head." Such characterizations routinely were stricken from the record at the request of the state.
Zimmerman testified that after he was transferred to Attica prison, he was beaten by guards in an elevator, resulting in blindness in his right eye and a fracture of the skull. He was hospitalized for 90 days, he said. Transferred to Greenhaven prison, Zimmerman got into another fight after a laundry worker called him a "Jew bastard," Zimmerman testified that after the fight he was sentenced to six months without yard privileges.
At the state prison in Dannemora, in 1951, a guard said to him, "Listen, kike." They fought. Zimmerman was subdued and spent 87 days in a strip cell, where he claims he maintained his sanity by playing with a common button in the dark. During the winter of 1953 he was hospitalized for 17 days for what Dannemora records listed under the heading, "Injured while bobsledding." Zimmerman testified that guards had, in fact, beaten him up, and that although "Dannemora is built on a hill" he had never in his prison experience gone sledding.
Court of Claims Judge Joseph Modugno frequently cautioned Zimmerman today against "editorializing," but Zimmerman remained an emotional witness bursting with interpretations that were judged inadmissible. His wife Ruth, whom he married upon his release from prison in 1962, said after the court session today that her husband's brief breakdown on the stand was the first time he had cried in 25 years.
"It may be an emotional breakthrough for Izzy," she said.