Orah Miller has spent the last 39 years working along with the rest of her family to get her brother, Charles “Zeke” Goldblum, released from serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison for a murder that she maintains he did not commit.
She and her family are not alone.
Since the incarceration of Goldblum in 1977, several high-profile figures have come out in support of his release, most notably the prosecuting attorney that tried the case, Peter Dixon, and retired U.S. District Judge Donald Ziegler, who presided over the trial. Dixon and Ziegler, as well as renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, have all submitted letters or affidavits at various clemency and commutation proceedings throughout the last three decades, claiming that the evidence and extenuating circumstances require that Goldblum be released.
Still, after almost 40 years, Goldblum, the son of the late Rabbi Moshe Goldblum who served for 24 years as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, remains behind bars, currently confined at the Frackville State Prison. He is 66 years old, walks with a cane, and has other health issues, said Miller.
Miller’s latest effort to help her brother is a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Tom Wolf, imploring him to allow the transfer of Goldblum to a prison in Israel, so that at the very least, he can be visited by his sister and his 92-year-old mother, who both reside there. Miller is seeking 1,000 letters from the community to petition Wolf.
Squirrel Hill resident Larry Rubin remembers the shock back in 1976 when Goldblum was arrested for murder.
Goldblum was 27 at the time, a law school graduate, and working at Arthur Young and Company, a major CPA firm now known as Ernst and Young. His family had moved to Squirrel Hill in 1963, the year he started high school at Taylor Allderdice.
Rubin had known the Goldblum family since the mid-1960s, when he was a program director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill. He got to know Zeke better when, in the mid-’70s, Zeke, with financial backing from his parents, purchased Goldstein’s Restaurant, right across the street from Rubin’s clothing store, Specialty Clothing, on Fifth Avenue.
“Zeke would stop in the restaurant on the way to the accounting firm,” Rubin recalled. “We were fellow merchants. I became quite friendly with him. He was very, very bright. He bought the restaurant as an investment for the future.”
That investment, however, turned sour, and the restaurant was set ablaze.
Rubin specifically remembers the day after the fire, when Goldblum came by his store and asked if he wanted to come see what was left.
“At that point, I never would have thought that he arranged the arson,” Rubin said.
But, in fact, he did. Goldblum has since admitted to hiring Clarence Miller (no relation to Orah Miller) to torch the place, preserving his parents’ investment, but setting off a series of events that ultimately led to the brutal murder of George Wilhelm on the night of Feb. 9, 1976.
Clarence Miller had perpetrated a land fraud on Wilhelm, and had asked Goldblum to meet with the two of them to try to work things out, according to Goldblum’s statement in support of his 2009 application for clemency.
Wilhelm was stabbed 26 times while in a car with Goldblum and Miller on the top deck of the Smithfield/Forbes parking garage in downtown Pittsburgh. Wilhelm’s body was then dumped over the side of the garage. But instead of falling eight stories to his immediate death, he landed on the roof of a walkway bridge to the former Gimbels Department Store and the Duquesne Club.
Court records show that when a police officer arrived and reached Wilhelm, he was still alive.
“Clarence — Clarence Miller did this to me,” Wilhelm told the officer just before he died.
That statement is known in the law as a “dying declaration.” It is typically given significant evidentiary weight, as it is presumed that a person on his deathbed will tell the truth.
Nonetheless, Wilhelm’s dying declaration was not enough to raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury, and in 1977, Goldblum was convicted of first-degree murder, arson, solicitation to commit arson and conspiracy to commit theft. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder, plus 15 to 30 years on the other charges.
Former judge states his case
Ziegler, the judge presiding over the trial, has been “troubled” for many years by the fact that the jury convicted Goldblum for murder despite Wilhelm’s dying words.
“Although the jury chose to believe Clarence Miller and convict Mr. Goldblum of murder, I have been troubled for years by the dying declaration of the victim: ‘Clarence — Clarence Miller did this to me,’” wrote Ziegler in a 1989 letter to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons in support of parole for Goldblum. “It is a moral and legal precept that a person is presumed to speak the truth when he is faced with death. The victim knew that he was dying, and he never mentioned the name of Charles Goldblum. In short, the murder conviction was based on the testimony of Miller and the jury’s apparent dislike for Mr. Goldblum.”
Ziegler wrote similar letters to the Board of Pardons in 1994 and 1998.
“This is a very, very sad case,” Ziegler told The Chronicle, noting that to this day he remains in support of Goldblum’s release.
In addition to the dying declaration, Ziegler pointed to other factors that he believes support Goldblum’s release: He has already served a long time in prison, Zeigler said, and he has maintained an exemplary record while confined. He also has the support of a very stable and united family, which is a persuasive factor for the judge.
“I have nothing but the highest regard for the family,” said Ziegler, who praised the late rabbi and his wife, in particular, as of high moral character.
While Ziegler maintains that Goldblum should be released and has written letters to three governors (Bob Casey, Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett) on Goldblum’s behalf, he noted two factors that “would cause political complications” that might inhibit a governor from ordering Goldblum’s release.
“First, about 10 years after the trial, he admitted to the arson, which means he lied about it at trial,” said Ziegler. “And second, while he was out on bond awaiting trial, he hired a hit man to kill the prosecution’s key witness (Clarence Miller).”
That “hit man,” though, happened to be an undercover police officer, sparing the life of the witness but furthering the jury’s contempt of Goldblum once they heard that evidence at trial.
In a career spanning 30 years of judicial service, this was the only instance Ziegler ever observed where a murder suspect awaiting trial hired someone to kill a key witness, the judge said.
In addition to Ziegler, the attorney who prosecuted Goldblum, Dixon, has since come out in support of the man he was responsible for sending to prison for life.
In an affidavit submitted in support of Goldblum’s Commutation Appeal, Dixon swore: “I have recently been exposed to information concerning this case which was not available to me at the time of trial. … Seeing this new information caused me to go back and carefully review and study the trial transcript in this matter. Based on my review of the trial and the information which has been available since the trial, I have come to the very firm conclusion that Charles Goldblum had nothing to do with the murder of George Wilhelm other than being a frightened witness to that murder and an accessory after the fact.”
Dixon could not be reached by The Chronicle for comment.
That both the prosecuting attorney and the trial judge are now coming out in favor of Goldblum’s release from prison is significant, said Karen Daniel, the director of the Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions, which has worked since 1998 to exonerate dozens of innocent men and women.
“It’s very unusual,” Daniel said. “You don’t see it often, and it’s noteworthy. If I were looking at this with a critical eye, I would take that very seriously.”
Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht also is convinced that Goldblum is not guilty of murder.
Although Wecht served as the Allegheny County Coroner at the time of the murder, he did not perform the autopsy and was not called as a witness at the trial. He did, however, testify as an expert at Goldblum’s 1996 commutation appeal. Wecht explained then that as Wilhelm was in the driver’s seat, and the blood spatters were on the dashboard of Wilhelm’s car, “it is more likely than not that he was stabbed by someone in front of or immediately to the side of him.”
Because Miller was seated next to Wilhelm, and Goldblum was in the back seat, Wecht concluded that it was Miller who stabbed Wilhelm.
“I stand by that,” Wecht said in an interview with The Chronicle, adding that he, too, believes that the dying declaration of Wilhelm should have exonerated Goldblum.
Goldblum’s unjust conviction, Wecht said, could be blamed on the young prosecuting attorney, Dixon, who “was trying to make a name for himself by getting the Jew-boy, the son of a rabbi, instead of Clarence Miller, who was just a two-bit hoodlum.”
“It was pure anti-Semitism,” Wecht said. “And it’s a goddamned shame.”
The current effort
Every petition that Goldblum has made to the court for parole has been denied. So now his family is putting its efforts into persuading the Department of Corrections to transfer him to Israel pursuant to The International Prisoner Transfer Program that permits the transfer of prisoners to their “home country,” where the home country becomes responsible for enforcing or administering the transferred sentences. It took Orah Miller and other family members a few years, but they were finally able to obtain Israeli citizenship for Goldblum for the purpose of the transfer.
“That was no small thing,” Orah Miller said, noting that it involved consultation with the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia.
When Goldblum’s Israeli citizenship finally was secured in 2012, Orah Miller began petitioning the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for the transfer.
“Pennsylvania sat on it for a really long time,” she said. “They didn’t answer. Then the Israeli Justice Department interfaced with the U.S. Justice Department when they were not getting an answer. They were just sitting on it.”
Finally, Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel denied the application for transfer, she said.
Although Wetzel’s office decline to speak to The Chronicle regarding the facts of the case, Wetzel’s press secretary confirmed in an email that Goldblum’s request for transfer “was reviewed and denied. In Pennsylvania, should a life-sentenced inmate wish to see a change in his/her sentence, he/she can petition the court and/or apply for clemency.”
Orah Miller is frustrated and has solicited the help of State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-23), and State Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny).
“We’ve reached out to the Department of Corrections,” said Frankel. “From what I’ve read, the number of years Zeke has served exceeds that time required for the basic crime which he did commit.”
But trying to get the Department of Corrections to be responsive is “complicated,” he said.
“I’m here as a resource to help explain it to the governor and his staff,” Frankel continued. “But these things are often enmeshed in politics. It’s a complicated calculus.”
Wolf’s office did not return a call for comment.
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute, which provides services to prisoners and their families, is familiar with Goldblum’s predicament and believes that the Commonwealth should be open to the concept of “compassionate release.”
“It’s a difficult subject,” said Vogel, “because on the one hand there should be more government recognition of release after so many years in prison. He’s sick and he’s ailing. He should be able to visit his mother while she is still alive. There should be a committee to look at this and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Orah Miller said she will not give up.
“My brother deserves this, my family deserves this, and my mother certainly deserves this,” she said.
For more information or for suggestions on how to contact Wolf on behalf of Goldblum, go to freezeke.com.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.