Showing posts with label Wrongly Executed. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wrongly Executed. Show all posts

10 April 2017

80 years ago: NYPD detective fatally shot

Detective Michael J. Foley
On this date in 1937 - Gunmen attempting to rob the Cafe Boulevard restaurant in Manhattan fatally shot Police Detective Michael J. Foley.

The incident led to the wrongful conviction and nearly to the execution of New York resident Isidore "Beansy" Zimmerman.

In 1938, Zimmerman and four other men were convicted of the murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The case against Zimmerman rested on testimony of alleged accomplices who received immunity from prosecution, a common occurrence in high-profile cases handled by the office of District Attorney Thomas Dewey. Those witnesses stated that, while Zimmerman was not present when Detective Foley was shot, he had planned the armed robbery that resulted in the fatal shooting.

On the day scheduled for execution, Governor Herbert Lehman commuted Zimmerman's sentence to life in prison. "Beansy" was taken from Death Row and evaluated for emotional problems by medical staff before being moved to the prison's general population. He spent the next twenty-three years in penitentiaries - Sing Sing, Auburn, Dannemora and Green Haven. Bitter over his treatment and emotionally scarred from his near-execution, Zimmerman was an uncooperative prisoner and frequently served disciplinary terms in solitary confinement.

Isidore 'Beansy' Zimmerman
Later investigations revealed improper actions by Dewey assistant Jacob Rosenblum. Rosenblum was found to have hidden evidence of conflicting statements by the witnesses used against Zimmerman.

In January 1961, the New York State Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Zimmerman. Prosecutors decided not to retry the flawed case. Zimmerman was released from prison in February 1961. The original indictment against him was dismissed in March 1967.

In 1981, two decades after he was released from prison, New York Governor Hugh Carey agreed to permit a Zimmerman lawsuit. Zimmerman won a court judgment of $1 million in the late spring of 1983. He was left with $660,000, after paying off his large legal expenses. He had little time left to enjoy the money. He bought a new car and took a short vacation in the Catskills before he died.

Sources:
  • “Detective is slain battling 4 thugs,” New York Times, April 11, 1937, p. 21.
  • “Indicted in police death,” New York Times, April 23, 1937, p. 2.
  • “Five are convicted in police killing,” New York Times, April 15, 1938, p. 11.
  • “5 young bandits sentenced to die,” New York Times, April 23, 1938, p. 32.
  • “3 die, 2 are spared for hold-up death,” New York Times, Jan. 27, 1939, p. 42.
  • Howard, Jane, “Wrong man in jail,” LIFE, May 15, 1964, p. 57-64.
  • “Resigns as Dewey aide,” New York Times, Dec. 31, 1941, p. 20.
  • Isidore Zimmerman v. City of New York et al., Supreme Court of New York, Special Term, New York County, 1966, ny.findacase.com, accessed May 5, 2016.
  • “Jacob J. Rosenblum dead at 73; Dewey homicide bureau chief,” New York Times, Jan. 24, 1971, p. 65.
  • Zimmerman v. State of New York, Court of Claims, 76 Misc. 2d 193, 1973, casetext.com, accessed May 5, 2016.
  • “What price a Zimmerman?” New York Times, June 5, 1983.
  • McFadden, Robert D., “Isidore Zimmerman, 66, man unjustly jailed for a murder,” New York Times, Oct. 14, 1983.


09 March 2017

'Wrongly Executed?' earns notice

The current issue of Vermont's esteemed alternative newsweekly, Seven Days, provides readers with a glimpse of my recently released book, Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution. That such a fine periodical took notice of my work and decided it was worth sharing with readers is an honor. Thank you to Seven Days and to arts reporter Sadie Williams.


See:

05 January 2017

Sberna goes to The Chair

On this date in 1939, Charles Sberna was sent to The Chair. Though he had been convicted of participating in the killing of a New York City police officer, many believed - and many still believe - he was innocent. 

At trial, codefendant Salvatore Gati took the witness stand to confess his own involvement in the incident that led to Police Officer John H.A. Wilson's death. But Gati insisted that Sberna was not present. Gati named two other men as his accomplices. Prosecutors from District Attorney Thomas Dewey's office apparently did not give serious consideration to the testimony or to Sberna's alibi.

Some of the evidence collected at the scene
of the killing of Police Officer Wilson.

The only witness who connected Sberna to the killing of Wilson had serious credibility problems of his own. He likely would have been on trial himself for a number of offenses if Dewey's office had not needed him to testify against Sberna. Did public officials have an anti-Sberna bias that prevented them from dealing even-handedly with the case?

Only much later, after Sberna had been executed in Sing Sing Prison's death device, did journalists wonder about other men who were suspected of involvement in Wilson's killing but never faced trial for it. Were those men released because bringing them to justice would have exposed a terrible injustice done to Sberna?

Excerpt from Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution

"...Thursday, January 5, 1939, was the 457th consecutive day that Charles Sberna and Salvatore Gati spent behind bars. It was also the last. The Death Row prisoners were granted the luxury of selecting their afternoon and evening meals. Sberna requested an early meal of lamb chops, mashed potatoes, salad, rolls and butter with coffee. He also asked for Chesterfield cigarettes. His requests for cigars and some other items were refused. Gati made no request for his early meal other than to be allowed to eat a can of pork and beans from his own supply. Sberna placed an additional large request for his supper. He ordered roast chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, fresh tomatoes, rolls and butter, coffee, ice cream and cake. Gati’s requested supper was just another can of pork and beans. The condemned men may have hoped for a last-minute reprieve from Governor Lehman, though Lehman had made it clear by then that he did not intend to interfere with their punishments. They must have understood the reality of the situation as their heads were shaved to allow for direct connection of an electrode with their scalps. During the day, Sberna was visited by his wife, and Gati was visited by his mother Teresa..."


30 December 2016

One week left in giveaway

There is just one more week to enter for a chance to win a signed copy of Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution

The giveaway promotion is being run by Goodreads.com and is open to U.S. residents only. Three signed paperback copies of the book will be randomly awarded on Jan. 5, 2017 - the anniversary of Charles Sberna's execution in Sing Sing Prison. Odds of winning depend on the number of entries.

For more information or to enter, visit Goodreads.

To learn more about the Sberna case, visit the Wrongly Executed? website.

15 December 2016

Chance to win a copy of 'Wrongly Executed?'

Three author-signed trade paperback copies of Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution will be awarded through a promotional drawing on Goodreads.com. No purchase is necessary to enter. Entries will be accepted until Jan. 5, 2017, the anniversary of Charles Sberna's meeting with the Sing Sing Prison electric chair. Details are available on the Goodreads.com website.



Goodreads Book Giveaway

Wrongly Executed? - The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sbe... by Thomas Hunt
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26 November 2016

'Wrongly Executed?' book now available

Sing Sing Warden Lewis Lawes had no doubt on the evening of January 5, 1939: He had just presided over the electric-chair-execution of an innocent man. The prison chaplain and many guards also felt that convicted cop-killer Charles Sberna had been sent to his death unjustly.

Lawes made his feelings known in a published book a short time later. Syndicated Broadway columnist Walter Winchell also called attention to the flawed case against Sberna in the summer of 1939 and again early in 1942. According to Winchell, the government knew that District Attorney Thomas Dewey's office had sent an innocent man to the chair and was providing "hush money" payments to Sberna relatives. Since then, opponents of capital punishment have included Sberna's name in collections of those deemed "wrongly executed" and have used the case as a somewhat vague example of the possibility of death penalty error. Still, little is known about Sberna or the circumstances that led him to the electric chair.

The story is a complex and controversial one, involving celebrity attorneys, Mafia bosses, violent political radicals, media giants and ruthless establishment figures, all set in a period in which Americans sought stability and government-imposed order after years of political upheaval, economic depression and Prohibition Era lawlessness.

Dust jacket for 'Wrongly Executed?' hardcover

I first became aware of Charles Sberna's story during research into U.S. capital punishment errors. Archived newspaper columns by Winchell revealed a tale worthy of retelling. Sberna and Gati both were convicted and executed for the 1937 murder of Patrolman John H.A. Wilson. Gati admitted his role but insisted that Sberna was not present for the crime. Names of other possible Gati accomplices were revealed, but prosecutors made little effort to check into them.

Email conversations with publisher Rick Mattix relating to the startup of the On the Spot Journal of "gangster era" crime history led me to assemble an article on the Sberna case for the journal's December 2006 issue.

That first article noted the relation by marriage of Charles Sberna and the Morello-Lupo-Terranova clan, which had been a major influence in early New York organized crime. Sberna took as his bride Carmela Morello, daughter of former Mafia boss of bosses Giuseppe Morello and niece of New York City rackets leaders Ignazio "the Wolf" Lupo and Ciro "Artichoke King" Terranova.

Sberna's own family background remained a mystery until later research into Amedeo Polignani of the NYPD shed light on the involvement by Charles Sberna's father Giuseppe in the anarchist-terrorist bombings of the 1910s. Giuseppe Sberna was a vocal leader in the East Harlem-based Bresci Circle, the nation's largest anarchist organization. Local, state and federal authorities hunted Giuseppe Sberna, but he escaped to his native Italy, leaving his wife and children behind in New York. Learning this, I began to wonder whether Charles Sberna, so closely connected to so many fearsome public enemies, possibly could have received a fair trial. My decision to fully explore the Sberna case soon followed.

Accused cop-killers Charles Sberna (left)
and Salvatore Gati (right) in court.

I examined court documents, the careers of prosecutors and elected officials, the history of law enforcement efforts against the early Mafia and the American anarchist movement, the questionable philosophies and courtroom tactics of D.A. Thomas Dewey and his assistants, and the known and suspected crimes of the men who might have committed the murder attributed to Sberna. Much of what I found was deeply troubling.

A fair trial may have been denied to Charles Sberna. Given the mood of the time, the background of the defendant and the circumstances of the case, a truly fair trial may have been impossible.

Wrongly Executed? - The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution is now available in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats. For more information and purchase options, visit the Wrongly Executed? website.

(I wish to express my appreciation to Christian Cipollini, C. Joseph Greaves, Ellen Poulsen and Robert Sberna for their support and assistance on this project.)

22 October 2016

'Wrongly Executed?' You decide


I have been finishing up a manuscript relating to the 1939 electric-chair execution of convicted cop-killer Charles Sberna. Sberna's name is frequently mentioned by opponents of capital punishment as an example of a wrongful execution. 

I first wrote an article on the subject years back for the On the Spot Journal published by the late Rick "Mad Dog" Mattix, and I have been accumulating additional information since that time. 

My original article (a version can be found on my American Mafia history website) touched on the trial evidence and Sberna's criminal background. It argued that the evidence of Sberna's involvement with two other men in the killing of Officer John H.A. Wilson appeared inconclusive but that it would be a misuse of the word "innocent" ever to apply it to Sberna, who was a habitual wrongdoer. 

The data acquired since then - trial testimony and evidence, legal appeals, witness statements and tons of background material - has done little to clear up the questions. But it has produced an exciting story, involving domestic terrorism, organized crime, corrupt politicians and crusading prosecutors.

Sberna and codefendant Salvatore Gati were brought to trial before authorities arrested a third suspect in the killing. At trial, Gati took the witness stand to admit his own guilt and to insist that Sberna was not present at the time and place of the crime. He refused to provide identifications for his two accomplices, but stated that Sberna was not one of them. When Sberna testified on his own behalf, he provided names of known criminals Gati reportedly revealed as his accomplices. 

A jury decided that Sberna and Gati were both guilty and that neither should not be shown mercy. An appeals court upheld the verdict. A generally liberal-minded governor refused to commute or even to delay Sberna's trip to the electric chair. The warden and chaplain of Sing Sing Prison grew convinced that Sberna had no part in the killing of Officer Wilson, but they had no authority to interfere with the execution. 

Over time, prosecutors spoke of their suspicion that one or both of the men named by Sberna were, in fact, involved in the killing of officer Wilson, but neither man was ever charged. With Sberna and Gati already dead, it appears it did not suit the interests of justice to reveal that there still remained two suspects for a three-man crime. 

There are many reasons to be concerned about the Sberna case. And it is tempting, from our perspective almost eight decades later, to condemn involved groups or individuals. But each was a product of his era and his environment. And each deserves to be judged within his unique context. 

I have called the book, Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution. After completing the great fun of researching and writing the book, I will soon begin the laborious chore of trying to find a publisher for it.

- Thomas Hunt