Isidore Zimmerman, who was released from prison in 1962 after serving 25 years for a murder he did not commit, now exhibits symptoms common to survivors of Nazi extermination camps, the New York Court of Claims was told today.
Zimmerman, 66, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or "survivors' syndrome," according to Dr. Israel Zwerling, called as an expert witness in Zimmerman's suit for $10 million in damages from the state.
Zwerling, chairman of the Department of Mental Health Sciences at Hahnemann medical school in Philadelphia, is head of the Holocaust Study Group. Last year, the organization completed a study of 80 Holocaust survivor families, comparing them with 120 American families.
Zwerling testified that Zimmerman, a former doorman, exhibits symptoms of social isolation, "startle reaction," sleep disorders, extreme irritability and reduced attention span, which the study group found in concentration camp survivors. "This combination of symptoms is unique to people who have survived an extended traumatic experience with constant threat to their lives."
Zimmerman already has turned down an offer of $1 million tax-free from the State of New York. In hearings scheduled to stretch well into next week he is attempting to show through health and psychiatric records and economic projections of his lost earnings that his compensation should be $10 million. The case is being heard before Judge Joseph Modugno, who will set the figure. Zimmerman is represented by the large New York law firm of Shea & Gould on a one-third contingency basis. Milton Gould said today in an interview that "this case has many interesting sociological and penological implications especially in the Holocaust comparison." He added that "I have no doubt that this will go to the appellate court."
Zimmerman, arrested in 1937, spent nine months on Death Row at Sing Sing and about 24 years in other prisons, where he frequently was punished for fighting and insolence. He is blind in one eye and attributes the injury to a beating by guards at Attica prison. He finally was released, and his original indictment dismissed, when an appeals court found that he had been convicted on perjured testimony knowingly admitted by a prosecutor.
Zwerling, describing Zimmerman's survivors' syndrome, said "except when he is asked about something else, he constantly talks about prison life even though that was more than 20 years ago. He has recurring nightmares. He reacts with panic to any situation requiring him to remember prison life. If a policeman comes unexpectedly into view he immediately looks to see if he's after him.
" . . . He has flattened his emotional responses. He cannot maintain his old interest in sports even on television because he gets too restless. He has marked evidence of organic brain syndrome--in his attention span, judgment and ability for abstract thought."
Zwerling testified that he had given Zimmerman the "seven from 100" test. In this psychiatric examination, a subject is asked to subtract seven from 100 and then seven from 93 and so on. "He failed this test, which is a test of attention span. This is common in survivors' syndrome," Zwerling said.
Startle reaction was defined by Zwerling as a normal reaction to a sudden shock. In Zimmerman, Zwerling said, the startle reaction is exacerbated by his imprisonment experience so that he frequently overreacts to stimuli.
"He is extremely suspicious," and at the same time "driven to telling everyone how important he is," Zwerling said. "It comes as no surprise to me that he has no friends. He has isolated himself. He was fired from his job as a doorman because he continually stopped tenants of his building to tell them about his prison experiences. That is typically grossly inappropriate behavior."
Asked by Gould if Zimmerman is able to "enjoy life," Zwerling replied, "That's the heart of the issue. He cannot enjoy life. He is unable to pursue pleasure for its own sake."
In the afternoon session, Zimmerman testified about life in prison at Auburn, Greenhaven, Sing Sing, Attica and the Tombs and about the succession of jobs he held after his release.
Assistant state Attorney General Frank Miller, over the objection of Zimmerman's lawyers, questioned Zimmerman about a juvenile record, with Miller contending that before Zimmerman's conviction for murder he had "fantasized himself as a gang member," and been a "macho kid" and a "delinquent." Miller also noted, again over the objection of Zimmerman's attorneys, that Zimmerman had, in fact, been arrested and charged with an earlier murder, although the case against him subsequently was dismissed.
Zimmerman contended that although he had fantasized about being a gang member, "I also fantasized about being a cowboy and an Indian and a sheik."
The juvenile record indicated that Zimmerman at the age of about 15 was "habitually disobedient, beyond the control of his parents, and associated with bad characters." It listed his IQ as 96, and contained the allegation that he had "flushed a drunk," 1930s street parlance for robbery of an inebriate.
After testimony concludes, Modugno is expected to announce the damage award within a few weeks.