Alice Crimmins Trials: 1968 & 1971
Alice Crimmins Trials: 1968 & 1971
Defendant: Alice Crimmins
Crimes Charged: First trial, murder; Second trial, murder and manslaughter
Chief Defense Attorneys: First trial: Marty Baron and Harold Harrison; Second trial: William Erlbaum and Herbert Lyon.
Chief Prosecutors: First trial: Anthony Lombardino and James Mosely; Second trial: Thomas Demakos and Vincent Nicolosi.
Judges: First trial: Peter Farrell; second trial: George Balbach
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: May 9-27, 1968; second trial: March 15—April 23, 1971
Sentences: First trial: 5 to 20 years; second trial: life plus five to 20 years.
SIGNIFICANCE: Appeals in this sensational New York case led to a ruling that courtroom errors are only prejudicial when there is a strong probability they have influenced a jury's verdict.
To millions of New Yorkers, Alice Crimmins was a tramp responsible for an unspeakable crime. To others, Crimmins was a victim of what one of her lawyers called "trial by innuendo," a woman persecuted for her defiant anger at a justice system more concerned with her social behavior than in solving the murder of her children.
On the morning of July 14, 1965, Edmund Crimmins reported that his two children were missing from the Queens apartment where they lived with his estranged wife Alice. Police searched the neighborhood, hoping to find 5-yearold Eddie Crimmins, Jr., and 4-year-old Alice Marie "Missy" Crimmins alive. In early afternoon, Missy's dead body was found in a vacant lot.
The ground-floor window of the children's room was open, but police were more interested in Alice Crimmins' reputation as a "swinger." Faced with a dearth of physical evidence, detectives felt that her sexual affairs and her failure to break into tears immediately upon viewing her daughter's body made her a suspect.
Both parents endured intense police questioning about their broken marriage. A court hearing over custody of the children was to have started on July 19. Instead, the badly decomposed body of Eddie Jr. was found that day in scrub near the busy Van Wyck Expressway.
Trial Begins Three Years Later
Mutual resentment grew between Alice Crimmins and the police who suspected her. She angrily accused them of not working to find the real killers and stopped cooperating. Detectives and district attorneys viewed her hostility as evidence of guilt. Wiretaps, electronic surveillance, and hundreds of interviews with her neighbors and friends failed to produce any evidence. The district attorney's office tried twice to convince grand juries to indict her. Secret testimony made a third attempt successful. Alice Crimmins was accused of murdering Missy—there was not enough left of Eddie Jr.'s body to support a murder charge.
Her trial began in May 1968, nearly three years after the Crimmins children disappeared. Prosecutors called Dr. Milton Helpern to the stand. The renowned forensic pathologist testified that Missy Crimmins was strangled. He held that food in the child's stomach could not have been ingested more than two hours before her death. Helpern's testimony was irreconcilable with Alice Crimmins' insistence that she fed both children at 7:30 p.m., two hours before she put them to bed, and over four hours before midnight when she last saw them alive.
One of Alice Crimmins' lovers, a contractor named Joe Rorech remembered her telling him a month before the expected custody battle that "she would rather see the children dead" than allow her husband to take them. The night of the disappearance, Rorech claimed to have called her apartment twice, receiving no answer at 2:00 a.m.
More damaging was Rorech's claim of a tearful admission in a Long Island restaurant 14 months after the children were found. "She said there was no reason for them to be killed, it was senseless," Rotech uneasily told the prosecutor. "I said Missy and Eddie are dead," and she said, "Joseph, please forgive me, I killed her."
"Joseph, that isn't true!" Crimmins cried from the defense table. When Judge Peter Farrell restored order, Rorech said that his conscience had later moved him to testify. He admitted to drinking heavily the day he called the apartment, opening the possibility that he might have dialed a wrong number. Rorech was a married man with seven children. The defense attacked him as a spiteful rejected lover, a perjurer whose marital and business problems were being exploited by the district attorney's office.
Observed from Above
The second surprise witness was housewife Sophie Earominski, whom police had discovered to be the author of an anonymous letter offering information. From her third-floor window, Earominski claimed to have seen a woman outside at 2:00 a.m., about the time Rorech supposedly phoned the Crimmins apartment. The woman carried a bundle of blankets and was walking with a man and a little boy. The man tried to hurry the woman, who had a dog on a leash. Earominski said the woman replied that the dog was pregnant and protested when the man threw the bundle into the back of a car. "Does she know the difference now?" the man said.
"Don't say that," said the woman, whom Earominski identified as Alice Crimmins. "There was agony in her voice. She was nervous, she sounded frightened." Earominski said the man snapped, "Now you're sorry!"
Alice Crimmins screamed in the courtroom, "You liar!"
The defense portrayed Earominski as a pathetic individual with an overactive imagination who enjoyed the celebrity of being a witness, adding that no one knew the Crimmins dog was pregnant until well after the killings.
Alice Crimmins' cold attitude broke when she was questioned about her children. She sobbed uncontrollably on the stand. The next day she returned to face prosecutor Anthony Lombardino. As Lombardino sarcastically questioned her about the whereabouts of her children during her numerous affairs, Crimmins' anger flared. The histrionics of the lawyers were so loud that a juror twice told Judge Farrell that the proceedings were inaudible because of the shouting. Noise from spectators was no less distracting. When Judge Farrell finally instructed the jury, he warned them, "We are not trying here a case involving sex morals. We are trying a homicide case."
On May 27, an all-male jury found Alice Crimmins guilty. As Judge Farrell prepared to sentence her, Crimmins turned her wrath on the district attorneys. "You want to close your books! You don't give a damn who killed my children!"
A New Trial
An unauthorized visit to Earominski's building by three jurors during the trial and the judge's disallowance of evidence that might have cast doubt on Rorech's and Earominski's testimony led an appeals court to overturn Crimmins' conviction in December 1969.
Six months later, she was indicted again. Under the double-jeopardy rule preventing defendants from being tried more than once for the same crime, she could not be charged twice with murdering Missy. She was charged instead with manslaughter and indicted for murdering Eddie, largely Rorech's new claim that she had "agreed to" her son's death.
The second trial revealed how sloppily detectives had handled the investigation. Potential evidence from the Crimmins apartment was not kept. Psychiatric doubts about Sophie Earominski's mental fitness were introduced. Joe Rorech expanded his testimony, saying that Crimmins told him that a convicted bank robber named Vinnie Colabella had killed Eddie Jr. for her. Prosecutors took Colabella out of prison and put him on the stand. He denied ever seeing Crimmins before. The prosecutor from the first trial, Anthony Lombardino, was called as a witness and admitted that he had once offered Colabella "a deal" in return for testimony.
The defense attacked the only motive prosecutors gave for Crimmins having her children killed, the custody battle with her husband (who stood by her during both trials). Her divorce lawyer testified that he had advised her that she would never lose her children under New York law, regardless of allegations about her moral reputation.
A new prosecution witness, Tina DeVita, remembered glimpsing a woman, a man with a bundle, a boy, and a dog on the night the Crimmins children disappeared, echoing Sophie Earominski's scenario without identifying anyone. After DeVita's testimony, Alice Crimmins appealed to the public for help. A man named Marvin Weinstein came forward and testified that he had been walking in the neighborhood with his dog, his young son, and his wife, who was carrying their daughter in a blanket. Mrs. Weinstein came to court. She resembled Alice Crimmins. When a former business associate testified that the Weinsteins did not visit his home on the night in question, the Weinsteins retorted that the man was a liar. Mr. Weinstein said he had not come forward during the first trial because he had not realized the case depended so much on Earominski's testimony.
The state's case seemed so shaky that shock and weeping filled the courtroom when Alice Crimmins was again found guilty. In May 1971, she was sentenced to life imprisonment, for murder, with a concurrent five to 20 years for manslaughter.
The murder charge was overturned two years later by an appellate division of the New York Supreme Court, which ruled that Eddie's death had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have resulted from a criminal act. The manslaughter conviction was also overturned. The court ruled that allowing errors like Joe Rorech's testimony that he had taken "truth serum" and a prosecutor's declaration that Crimmins did not "have the courage to stand up and tell the whole world she killed her daughter" were "grossly prejudicial." The court ordered her to be tried again, but only on the manslaughter charge.
In February 1975, however, the New York State Court of Appeals reinstated the manslaughter verdict. Noting that two juries had found Alice Crimmins "criminally responsible for the death of her daughter," the court ruled that the conviction was fair because there was no "significant probability, rather than only a rational possibility that the jury would have acquitted the defendant had it not been for the error or errors which occurred." Dissenting justices wrote that this decision changed the definition of prejudicial conduct, "dangerously diluting the time-honored standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which has been a cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence."
Alice Crimmins was ordered to finish her sentence. She was paroled in 1977, quietly ending one of the most emotional and troubling cases ever heard in New York courts.
—Thomas C. Smith
Suggestions for Further Reading
Goldstein, Tom. "Appeals Court Finds 'Overwhelming Proof Mrs. Crimmins Killed Her Daughter." The New York Times (February 26, 1975): 34.
Gross, Kenneth. The Alice Crimmins Case. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
Helpern, Milton with Bernard Knight. Autopsy: The Memoirs of Milton Helpern, The World's Greatest Medical Detective. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977.
Mills, James. The Prosecutor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.