Courant File Photo
April 28, 2014
When Harold Israel was first interviewed by Bridgeport police, he said he was in the Empire Theater watching a string of silent movies at the time the Rev. Hubert Dahme was shot to death.
But after 28 hours of interrogation, Israel admitted everything. He told police he killed the priest out of a desire to take another's life, and that he had fled along the exact course that witnesses saw the killer take. He even brought investigators to the bathroom of his rooming house, where police retrieved a shell casing Israel said had held the fatal bullet.
Four witnesses identified Israel as the man they saw running from the crime scene. Another woman, who knew Israel, said she saw him in the area around the time of the shooting, and that on an earlier occasion he told her he had a gun and was going to kill someone with it. A Bridgeport police ballistics expert declared that the fatal bullet had been fired from Israel's gun.
Homer S. Cummings, the prosecutor for Fairfield County, had an easy death-penalty case on his hands. But Cummings was determined to test all of the evidence before him.
And the more he tested, the more it turned to dust.
So on May 27, 1924 -- 102 days after Harold Israel's arrest -- Cummings stood before Judge L. P. Waldo Marvin, not to ask for an immediate trial, but to request that Israel be set free. And he laid out his case in a lengthy address to the court, later reprinted word-for-word in The Courant, under the screaming headline "SAVED FROM THE HANGMAN'S NOOSE."
The eyewitnesses, he said, had been inconsistent in their description of the killer, and he doubted their ability to positively identify a stranger in a police lineup weeks after seeing the person for a fleeting moment in the dark.
To test that, Cummings stood at the spots where the witnesses stood, at times that matched the lighting conditions at the time of the killing, and had a deputy recreate the assassin's flight from the crime.
Cummings said he had no doubt the witnesses saw the killer. But he said it was "utterly impossible" for them to have made a positive identification under the existing conditions, saying he was unable even to identify his own deputy.
As for the witness who said she knew Israel, Cummings determined that the luncheonette where the woman worked had a glass partition in front of the window, and it was difficult to see clearly through the double glass. Although the woman said Israel had waved to her through the window and she had waved back, Cummings said she might simply have been mistaken, and that since the waitress was a "measurably good-looking woman," it might well have been a complete stranger who waved.
Cummings also brought in a team of six prominent experts in ballistics, which he said had become an accepted science, akin to "finger-printing bullets." And every one of them said bullets fired from Israel's gun had unmistakable markings that did not match the bullet that killed Dahme. The Bridgeport police captain who declared the bullets a match was unable, Cummings said, to explain his conclusion satisfactorily when Cummings requested a demonstration.
As for Israel leading police to the shell casing, it turned out there were multiple shell casings in the bathroom, as that is where Israel and his roommates dropped their casings after target practice.
But there was still the confession, which Israel later recanted and said he had signed only because he was so tired he was willing to do anything for rest.
Cummings concluded there was "no evidence that Israel was subjected to any physical violence or any form of torture or inquisition known as 'The Third Degree.'"
But a team of doctors appointed by the state's attorney's office were unanimous in concluding that the confession was worthless, declaring that Israel was "of low mentality, of the moron type," and "peculiarly subject to the influence of suggestion."
And the details of the crime related by Israel in his confession, Cummings noted, were all details known to police.
The validity of confessions, particularly after lengthy interrogations, remains a hot topic today, leading to frequent clashes between prosecutors and defense attorneys. But 90 years ago, prosecutor Cummings took the defendant's side.
"It goes without saying that it is just as important for a state's attorney to protect the innocent as it is to convict the guilty," he declared. "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."
Harold Israel was set free, Hollywood turned the story into a movie 20 years later, and Cummings, who earlier had founded the firm of Cummings & Lockwood, went on to serve as U.S. attorney general.
Father Dahme's murder was never solved.
IMAGE CAPTION: A photo of Harold Israel print in the Courant on April 19, 1925.