After serving almost 45 years in prison for a murder that many are convinced he did not commit, Charles “Zeke” Goldblum has finally been given his freedom.
Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a commutation for Goldblum, who had been serving a life sentence for the murder of George Wilhelm. A commutation of a life sentence means a reduction of the sentence to life on parole. Wolf also signed commutations for 12 other clemency applicants serving life sentences.
“These 13 individuals have served time for their crimes and deserve now a second chance,” Wolf said in a prepared statement. “They now have a chance to begin a life outside of prison that I hope is fulfilling for each of them.”
Goldblum, the son of the late Rabbi Moshe Goldblum who served for 24 years as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, had been unanimously recommended by the Board of Pardons in September 2019, but his application was not signed by Wolf until Feb. 11, 2021.
Since Goldblum’s incarceration in 1977, several high-profile figures have come out in support of his release, most notably the prosecuting attorney who tried the case, Peter Dixon, and the late U.S. District Judge Donald Ziegler, who presided over the trial. Dixon and Ziegler, as well as renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, all submitted letters or affidavits at various clemency and commutation proceedings throughout the last four decades, claiming that the evidence and extenuating circumstances required that Goldblum be released.
Each time Goldblum applied to have his life sentence commuted, Wilhelm’s family asked the Pardons Board to reject his request. At the Sept. 2019 hearing, KDKA reported that the victim’s nephew said the family still believed Goldblum was guilty.
Goldblum is 71 and has health issues. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, former mayor of Braddock, chairs the state’s Board of Pardons. Fetterman said that it served no purpose for Goldblum to remain behind bars.
“I think it’s important that mercy must be a partner to justice,” Fetterman told the Chronicle. “I think there has to be a path for redemption and mercy for those who have led a good existence and have moved on and expressed genuine remorse. And that’s why the pardons board that I chair exists.
“Add up the years he did in jail, add up the years any of them have done in jail,” he continued. “No one, no one in that class got away with murder. They all received exemplary recommendations from corrections staff and they’ve all been in prison for an extraordinary length of time and at some point, what are you doing as a society? When does justice become vengeance? Mercy, forgiveness and redemption underpins every major world religion. Why would we want it removed from our criminal justice system? That’s why the pardons board exists, for that very reason.”
Fetterman stressed that commutation is not “appropriate for everyone, particularly those who remain a danger to themselves or others.” But in cases where there’s no risk to public safety, “why would we want to keep them until they die?” he said.
Goldblum was arrested for murder in 1976. At the time, he was 27, a law school graduate, and working at Arthur Young and Company, now known as Ernst and Young. His family had moved to Squirrel Hill in 1963, the year he started high school at Taylor Allderdice. He had been a Hebrew school teacher at B’Nai Israel in Greensburg while in law school, and at Beth Israel Congregation in Washington, Pennsylvania, where he also served as a cantor while studying at Washington and Jefferson College.
When a restaurant on Fifth Avenue that Goldblum had purchased as an investment in the 1970s was destroyed by fire, it triggered a string of events that led to the murder of Wilhelm on the night of Feb. 9, 1976.
A man named 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 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.
“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.
Goldblum’s family and friends have been advocating for his release for decades. Late last week, he was transferred to a transition facility in Pittsburgh.
“On behalf of Charles ‘Zeke’ Goldblum, his family, and many dedicated and loyal friends and supporters, we are ecstatic that Zeke will finally be coming home to his awaiting family and friends,” said friends and supporters of Goldblum in a prepared statement. “We are grateful to all members of the Board of Pardons for unanimously recommending Zeke for commutation and to Gov. Wolf for signing off. Words cannot express our extreme gratitude for this act of mercy. It is our hope that other deserving inmates are afforded the same opportunity of a second chance.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.