Martin Zeldis
Martin Zeldis ()

What made Martin Zeldis’s career fruitful was not the low-hanging fruit.

Everyone can get excited about a big trial — a juicy murder case, for example. It’s harder, however, to get excited about poring over murderously long trial transcripts, in search of a shred of evidence that could clear an already convicted client.

But that’s what Zeldis did as chief of the legal services unit for the state Division of the Public Defender Services. Throughout his career, he had his hand in a fair share of high-profile appeals, like the case of Todd Rizzo, a former U.S. Marine sentenced to death in 1999 for killing a teenage boy.

“Appellate is a rough business,” said Zeldis, who retired in early August. “You have to get caught up in minutiae. Appeals are looking at transcripts, reading them seven times over to see if you can find some legal mistake. If you can’t get fascinated by these things … you’re going to be falling asleep at the desk with the transcript in front of you because it’s so horribly boring.”

Zeldis’ affinity for such work is “probably genetic. It’s a curse as well as a good thing.”

The character trait led to a quip in 2003 that followed him around the rest of his career. In an interview with the Law Tribune after taking over as head of the legal services unit, which handles appellate work, Zeldis said he could “get excited about a bar of soap.” And so a colleague, Lauren Weisfeld, handed Zeldis a bar of Pure and Natural one day at work.

Zeldis kept the soap bar, unopened, in the bathroom of his home. It survived some scares. Seven years ago, Zeldis’ son unwrapped it and was about to use it to wash his hands when Zeldis intervened. His son probably thought his dad was a bit loony, yelling about a soap bar. But he wasn’t.

On one of his final days as legal services chief, Zeldis gave the bar back to his successor, Weisfeld, in a rather symbolic passing of the soap.

With practically no extended breaks for four and a half decades, Zeldis now has plenty of time to relax. He plans to volunteer more often with Habitat for Humanity and ride his bicycle. He also envisions himself embarking on a trip around the U.S., similar to one John Steinbeck while writing “Travels with Charley.” There’s plenty of time to iron out the details. “This is my first week of being retired,” Zeldis said.

Lifestyle of Clients

Early in life, Zeldis became hung up on the idea of law school after watching the Henry Fonda classic “12 Angry Men,” which focused on the dynamics of a murder trial jury. Zeldis’ father, a doctor, tried in vain to cure him of litigious ways, but to no avail.

After Zeldis finished his undergraduate degree at Syracuse, he enrolled in at Albany Law School in New York. He began to think his father might be right, especially after an esoteric course on property law. “Law school [was] a pain in the neck,” Zeldis said. “I thought, ‘Oh, I made the wrong decision.’”

His first gig out of law school – as an attorney in Wichita, Kan., working for Volunteer for Service to America (VISTA), a program that strives to end poverty – changed his mind. He represented people on welfare, Social Security and with disability issues. “It was in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, in the middle of all sorts of craziness,” he said.

Zeldis said VISTA wanted employees to “experience firsthand” the lifestyle of many of their clients in order to understand their struggles and effectively advocate for them. So he and his wife rented a shoebox Wichita apartment for $65 a month, which included utilities.

Building personal relationships was important, so his wife established the Wichita Art Museum van – WAM van for short – as a way to build community morale. “If you were part of the community, if people got to trust you, it would be much more effective,” Zeldis said.

That experience in Wichita “dictated the rest of my career,” Zeldis said. “I discovered I really enjoyed that way of being a lawyer. I only had one thing in mind.”

From there, Zeldis went on to work at the New London branch of Connecticut Legal Services, steadily rising up through the legal aid agency. He was eventually put in charge of civil matters. From there, Zeldis moved on to doing trial and appellate work, spending the latter part of his career with the state public defender’s office.

Rizzo Case

Some of Zeldis’ best work came out during the case of Rizzo, a former Marine who was sentenced to die in 1999 for viciously beating a 13-year-old boy to death with a sledgehammer because he wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone.

Despite his deep-rooted urge for violence, Rizzo had did not have a prior violent history, which became part of a defense against capital punishment.

Rizzo’s appeal was based on sweeping changes to the state’s death penalty law in 1995, which established a “weighting process” that balanced mitigating and aggravating factors.

The appeal also focused on procedural events at penalty hearings as well as comments made by former Waterbury State’s Attorney John Connelly during closing arguments in which he labeled Rizzo’s defense attorney’s assertions “bull” – which was shorthand for “bullsh–,” Zeldis said.

So Zeldis’ job became wading through “bullshit” in the form of thousands of pages of transcripts and court documents. He needed to find evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, and establish that jurors who had sentenced Rizzo to death were improperly instructed by a trial judge on how to balance mitigating and aggravating factors.

His 300-plus appellate brief covered 30 issues. Of those, the state’s Supreme Court found two with merit and overturned the death sentence. The penalty phase of Rizzo’s trial was held again, and in 2011 the state Supreme Court upheld a second death sentence. He remains one of a dozen Connecticut inmates on death row. Nonetheless, the initial Supreme Court ruling remains a major coup for Zeldis.

“It prolonged his life,” Zeldis said. “It was a flat-out reversal. That’s probably the biggest appellate grab I had.”

Despite the allure of handling a big case, Zeldis said he always preferred some of the lesser-known ones. “When I look at cross-section of some of the cases, I find some of the most important cases that were decided were relatively small. Maybe a robbery; maybe a breaking and entering. Maybe a larceny.”

True to form, Zeldis’ lasting reputation is shaped by his proclivity for effecting change on a micro level.

“I’m going miss being connected to [colleagues],” he said. “When you work 45 straight years, and you like all of them, you will miss a large part of what you do.”