Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The State v Harold Israel

I sometimes write and read with the sound of the TV low in the background.  A few weeks ago, a movie had just started on TCM when I heard the narrator's voice mention something about "a city in Connecticut".  That caught my attention (it doesn't take much to do that).

The movie was Boomerang!, released in 1947, and one of the first films directed by Elia Kazan, who went on to do On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East Of Eden.  Boomerang!, starring Lee J Cobb, Dana Andrews and Karl Malden, starts with the murder of a priest walking on a street.  An ex-GI and drifter is eventually accused of the killing with local police and the coroner's office pressing the case.  The state's attorney is brought in to prosecute, but in a surprising twist begins to have doubts about the case and eventually presents to the court the case against the prosecution, leading to the dismissal of charges.

As is my habit, I checked wikipedia to find out more about the film during my viewing.  Boomerang! is based on a true story that occurred in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1924.  A popular Catholic priest, Father Hubert Dahme, was gunned down at the intersection of High and Main Street, in the center of the city, on the evening of February 4.  Someone walked up behind him and shot him in the head.  Father Dahme's funeral was attended by 12,000 people.

Although initial eyewitness testimony was confusing a week later Harold Israel, a 21 year old former soldier and vagrant, was arrested in the nearby city of Norwalk.  Israel was already in custody on a gun-possession charge, and the investigation by the police and the coroner revealed his gun was of the same make as that which killed Father Dahme, the ballistics on the deadly bullet matched the gun, he was identified by seven eyewitnesses and, after two days of interrogation, he confessed, though he later recanted.

In those days, the counties in Connecticut were still functioning governmental authorities (these powers were removed in the 1960s).  The state's attorney for Fairfield County, responsible for criminal prosecutions, was Homer Cummings.   Born in 1870, Cummings already had a distinguished career.  A graduate of Yale Law School, Homer was three times elected mayor of Stamford in the early 1900s.  In 1909, along with Charles Lockwood, he founded the law firm of Cummings & Lockwood. which for most of the 20th century was the largest firm in the state.  In 1914, Cummings was appointed state's attorney for the county.  Homer was also a powerful player in the state's Democratic party, with aspirations for higher office, and was also a member of the Democratic Party's National Committee at the time of these events.,_Harris_%26_Ewing_photo_portrait,_1920.jpg(Cummings)

Because of the popularity of Father Dahme and the brazeness of the crime, shooting a priest on a city street, the case generated enormous publicity and most were convinced of the guilt of Harold Israel.  The prosecution's case was of huge public interest and the Court was jammed when Homer Cummings rose to speak on May 27, 1924.   Fortunately, the full transcript of the presentation of the state's attorney can be found in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, Vol 15/Issue 3 (1925)

The introduction to the Journal account of the proceedings contains an introduction by William Maltbie, Judge of the Superior Court in Hartford.  Judge Maltbie informs the reader that the state's attorney is appointed by the judges in his jurisdiction, and the judges are nominated by the governor and serve an effective life tenure.  He goes on to write:
The method of appointment of the state's attorney has made that office one of high honor, and, despite the small salaries provided by law, the very leaders of the bar have been willing to assume its onerous duties; so it has removed the office from the stress of politics and the vagaries of popular feeling and given the opportunity for the untrammeled exercise of independence in judgment and action.
After summing up what seemed to be overwhelming evidence of guilt, including eyewitnesses identifying Israel as the man they'd seen fleeing the shooting; Israel taking the police to his room and showing them a spent cartridge, later identified as for the bullet that killed Father Dahme; the positive identification of Israel's .32 caliber revolver as the weapon which fired the fatal bullet; as well as Israel's confession, Cummings told the Court: "There did not seem to be a vestige of reason for suspected for a moment that the accused was innocent."  However, he then added:
. . . there were sufficient circumstances of an unusual character involved to make it highly important that every fact should be scrutinized with the utmost character and in the most impartial manner.  It goes without saying that it is just as important for a state's attorney to use the great powers of his office to protect the innocent as it is to convict the guilty.
Cummings then proceeded to conclusively demolish each leg of the case against Israel.
(Harold Israel)

Regarding the confession, Cummings introduced the statement of three physicians who examined Israel and concluded that at the time of his confession, after two days of questioning and deprived of sleep, he was "totally incapable of rendering a coherent, dependable statement" on top of being:
. . . of low mentality of the moron type, quiet and docile in demeanor, totally lacking in any characteristics of brutality or viciousness, of very weak will and peculiarly subject to the influence of suggestion.
I think they'd phrase this differently today.
Once Israel recovered from the interrogation he had been steadfast in maintaining his innocence according to Cummings.  The state's attorney then introduced convincing evidence that the cartridge found in Israel's room was not fired by the accused's revolver and proceeded to deconstruct the credibility of the eyewitness testimony, including relating attempts by he and his assistants to perform identifications at the scene under the exact conditions the witnesses faced.

Attorney Cummings then took on the matter of ballistics.  For this purpose he used the testimony of no less than six experts (it probably helped that in those day Connecticut was the home of the American firearms industry), of whom four were from the Remington Arms Company, one from the Winchester Arms Company and the sixth a nationally renowned expert used frequently by the New York City Police Department.  He reported that the experts were:
. . . not only of the opinion that there is no evidence that the mortal bullet came out of the Israel revolver, but they are clearly of the opinion that the mortal bullet came out of some other unknown weapon.
This opinion was based on the distinctive difference between the markings and grooves on bullets fired by the Israel revolver compared to those on the mortal bullet.  Further, Israel's revolver was in bad repair and frequently misfired when held at the angle at which the murderer held his weapon (as determined by the path of the bullet through the victim's head).  In fact, in an experiment, the Israel revolver misfired 18 times in a row when held at the angle of the Father Dahme shooting.

Homer Cummings then told the court:
In view of what I have said about every element of the case, I do not think that any doubt of Israel's innocence can remain in the mind of a candid person.
The Court quickly approved the entry of a nolle prosecution in the case and Harold Israel was a free man. 
Related image

It is difficult at this distance to judge exactly how and why Cummings and those in his office decided on this course of action.  It is clear that an enormous amount of time was spent by Cummings and his assistants in trying to determine what actually happened on the evening of February 5, rather than merely trying to build the best case for the prosecution.  Whatever the motivation and from whom ever initially raised doubts about the case, the result does honor to Cummings and his team.

Bridgeport police were surprised and outraged by Cummings' action and he also received some criticism from within the Democratic party.  However, his actions were also praised by others as the model for how a prosecutor should act.  In 1933 he was appointed Attorney General of the United States by President Franklin D Roosevelt, serving for six years.  Cummings died in 1956 at the age of eighty six. 

Feelings about the unsolved case remained raw in Bridgeport and, in 1946, when Elia Kazan sought film Boomerang! on location in the city he was denied permission by the authorities.  Instead, Boomerang! was shot in nearby Stamford, where it also had it premiere on March 5, 1947.

Harold Israel lived until 1964, reportedly marrying and being steadily employed with no further encounters with the criminal justice system.  The murder of Father Dahme was never solved. 


  1. THC: As lawyers you and I both know that 99.99% of current prosecutors would never handle the case that way today. My Professor Of Crim Law instilled upon us that the first job of a prosecutor was to "make sure that justice is done." As a 1L it resonated with me. Sadly today most DA's are looking for their next gig in politics so doing what Cummings did would be the death knell to that effort. We forget that the power to charge and indict is enormous and today most USA's and State Ag's office routinely intentionally overcharge to force a deal. In my opinion that is the antithesis of justice.

    Every lawyer and most cops should have to learn about this case and be reminded as part of their CLE. Thanks for posting

  2. I shared the link to this post with a friend, who turned up this contemporary review of the movie. I thought you and your readers might find it interesting.

    1. Thanks for digging that up! Fascinating review.