Carl Anthony Coppolino Trials: 1966 & 1967

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Carl Anthony Coppolino Trials:
1966 & 1967

Defendant: Carl Anthony Coppolino
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Joseph Afflitto, F. Lee Bailey, and Joseph Mattice
Chief Prosecutors: First trial: Vincent Keuper; second trial: Frank Schaub
Judges: First trial: Elvin R. Simmill; second trial: Lynn Silvertooth
Places: First trial: Monmouth County, New Jersey; second trial: Naples, Florida
Dates of Trials: First trial: December 5-15, 1966; second trial: April 3-28, 1967
Verdicts: First trial: Not guilty; second trial: Guilty, second-degree homicide

SIGNIFICANCE: The two trials of Dr. Carl Anthony Coppolino are case studies in the importance juries attach to an ostensibly discredited witness. In the first trial they chose to disbelieve a self-confessed accessory to murder and were swayed instead by the welter of contradictory forensic evidence. A second jury, confronted by much the same forensic testimony alone, arrived at a very different verdict.

In 1966 a conversation between two women in Florida sparked one of the most hotly contested debates in American legal history: Did Dr. Carl Coppolino murder his wife and his ex-lover's husband, or was he merely the hapless victim of jealous revenge? Two trials, in two states, arrived at very different answers.

At age 30, Coppolino, a New Jersey anesthesiologist, had been declared medically unfit for work because of a heart condition. Supported by a disability benefit, royalties from writing, and the salary of his wife Carmela, also a physician, Coppolino began a torrid affair with 48-year-old housewife Marjorie Farber, a vivacious woman who looked much younger than her years. Marjorie Farber's husband William Farber, at first tolerated the liaison, then grew resentful.

On the evening of July 30, 1963, Marjorie Farber telephoned the Coppolinos in a state of panic. William Farber was unconscious in the bedroom. Could Carl come over immediately? Coppolino, wary of losing his benefits if caught practicing, sent Carmela Coppolino instead. She found Farber dead. Apart from being "all blue down one side," there was no outward sign of distress to the body. At Coppolino's urging, she signed the death certificate, citing coronary thrombosis as the cause.

Over the next 18 months Coppolino's affair with Farber waned, and, in April 1965, the Coppolinos moved to Longboat Key, Florida. Disaster struck when Carmela Coppolino failed the Florida medical examination. Coppolino, in desperate need of money, began dating a wealthy divorcee named Mary Gibson.

At 6:00 a.m. August 28, 1965, the Coppolino family physician, Dr. Juliette Karow, was awakened by a phone call. She heard Coppolino tearfully describe how he had just found his wife dead, ostensibly from a heart attack. Karow was puzzled when she arrived at the houseyoung women in their 30s rarely suffer coronary failurebut she found no evidence of foul play and duly signed the certificate. Forty-one days later Coppolino married Mary Gibson.

Marjorie Farber, who had pursued Coppolino to Florida in hopes of resurrecting their romance, was incensed by this turn of events. She went to Dr. Karow and unburdened her soul. It was a sensational tale, one that would fill front pages across the nation for months: how she had been hypnotized into attempting murder, then stood by, a helpless onlooker, as her husband was smothered to death by Dr. Carl Coppolino.

Both New Jersey and Florida ordered exhumations. The autopsies were performed by Dr. Milton Helpern, New York's chief medical examiner. He found evidence of succinylcholine chloride, an artificial form of curare used by anesthesiologists, in both bodies. Also, Farber's cricoida cartilage in the larynxwas fractured, indicating that he had been strangled. These findings led to dual charges of homicide being filed against Coppolino.

Round One

After considerable interstate wrangling, Coppolino stood trial in New Jersey for the murder of William Farber. Prosecutor Vincent Keuper declared that Coppolino had not only broken the commandment "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife," but also "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's life."

Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey knew his only hope lay in totally discrediting Marjorie Farber. Break her testimony and Helpern's words would fall on deaf ears. His opening address contained a ringing indictment:

This woman drips with venom on the inside, and I hope before we are through you will see it drip on the outside. She wants this man so badly that she would sit on his lap in the electric chair while somebody pulled the switch, just to make sure that he dies. This is not a murder case at all. This is monumental and shameful proof that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

When Bailey sat down, the battle lines had been drawn. Now it was time for the first prosecution witness: Marjorie Farber.

She told of being under Coppolino's spell ever since he had first hypnotized her to get rid of a smoking habit. She was powerless to deny him anything, especially when he told her repeatedly, " that bastard [Farber] has got to go." Coppolino had given her a syringe filled with some deadly solution and instructions to inject Farber when he was asleep. At the last moment her nerve failed, but not until she had injected a minute amount of the fluid into Farber's leg. When he became ill she summoned Coppolino to the house. He first administered a sedative, then attempted to suffocate Farber by wrapping a plastic bag around his head. As the two men struggled, Marjorie begged Coppolino to stop. Instead, he smothered Farber with a pillow.

Devastating Cross-Examination

Bailey rose to face the witness. What followed was brutal and at times belligerent. It also remains a classic of cross-examination. Bailey began sarcastically. There had been no murder at all; everything she said had been a lie, a figment of her malicious imagination, instigated by an evil desire for revenge on the man who had ditched her. Wasn't that right? Over a torrent of prosecution objections, Bailey pressed on: "This whole story is a cock-and-bull story, isn't it?"

Sustained.

"Didn't you make this all up, Mrs. Farber?"

Sustained.

"Did you fabricate this story?"

Sustained.

Shifting tactics, Bailey ridiculed Farber's claim of having been an unwilling but helpless participant in the murder, saying he would produce medical testimony to prove such obeisance impossible. He hacked away, constantly reminding the jury of her adulterous and jealous behavior and, most of all, her age. "This 52-two year-old woman " was a repeated theme, as if this were reason enough to explain Farber's vitriolic accusations. Perceptibly, the mood of the court swung against her. At the end of a two-day ordeal, she limped from the stand, her credibility in tatters.

She was replaced by Milton Helpern. Even this seasoned courtroom veteran reeled under the Bailey bludgeon. At issue was whether William Farber had suffered from terminal heart disease, and if the cricoid fracture had occurred before or after death. Helpern was emphatic on both points, although Bailey drew from him the grudging admission that there was no bruising about the neck, as would normally have been present if strangulation had occurred. Bailey speculated that rough handling of the body during disinterment, in particular a clumsy grave-digger's shovel, had caused the cricoid fracture. Helpern scoffed at such an idea. But Bailey had his own expert witnesses and they thought otherwise.

Doctors Joseph Spelman and Richard Ford, both experienced medical examiners, expressed the view that, not only was the cricoid fracture caused postmortem, but that William Farber's heart showed clear signs of advanced coronary disease, certainly enough to have killed him.

With the verdict still very much up in the air, Bailey called his star witness, Carl Anthony Coppolino. Slim and sleekly groomed, he answered his accusers well and without any noticeable guile. Coppolino came across as confident without seeming cocky, helpful but not obsequious.

Summing up, Judge Elvin Simmill commented on the vast array of conflicting medical evidence and stressed to the jury that they must be satisfied of Coppolino's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." It was an admonition that they took to heart. After deliberating for less than five hours they returned a verdict of not guilty.

Florida Fights Back

Coppolino's second trial opened in Naples, Florida before Justice Lynn Silvertooth on April 3, 1967. State Attorney Frank Schaub, recognizing that there was no direct evidence to link Carl Coppolino with the death of Carmela Coppolino, piled up a mountain of inconsistencies and motives for murder that the defense couldn't counter. High on the list was money. Schaub leaned heavily on the fact that Coppolino was running short of cash. He portrayed the doctor as a heartless philanderer, determined to wed Mary Gibson for her considerable fortune. But Carmela Coppolino's refusal to grant him a divorce had blown that idea sky-high. Instead, Coppolino began eying his wife's life insurance policy, $65,000. With that and Gibson's bank account, he would be set for life. "There's your motive," Schaub trumpeted.

Persuasive as Schaub's case was, other, perhaps more significant, forces were at work on his behalf. Coppolino's reputation had preceded him. Nothing was said, of course, but this particular jury gave Milton Helpern a far more favorable hearing than their New Jersey counterpart. His task was much the same as before, to explain the presence of succinylcholine chloride in Carmela Coppolino's body, and this he did in lucid terms that anyone could understand.

Marjorie Farber testified to overhearing Coppolino on the phone after his wife's death, saying, "They have started the arterial work and that won't show anything." Further questioning clarified that this referred to the fluid used by embalmers to replace the blood. It was damning stuff.

Once again F. Lee Bailey performed brilliantly, but each witness stood firm. And this time he received no assistance from the defendant. Unaccountably, Coppolino refused to testify on his own behalf. Bailey was stunned, later calling it "a terrible mistake."

Certainly the jury thought so. On April 28, 1967, they found Coppolino guilty of second-degree murder, a curious verdict that has never been fully explained; under Florida law, murder in the second degree implies a lack of premeditation on the part of the killer, and anything more calculated than willful poisoning is hard to imagine. Whatever the reasoning, their decision saved Coppolino from Death Row. Instead, the slender ex-doctor who thought he had carried out the perfect murder was led away to begin a life sentence at the state prison at Raiford, Florida.

After serving 121/2 years, Carl Coppolino was paroled in 1979. Coppolino holds a unique position as the only person ever charged with two entirely separate "love triangle" murders. Either case, taken on its own, might have resulted in acquittal, but coming in such quick succession, the two proved insurmountable. Juries are not prepared to extend coincidences quite that far.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Baden, Michael M. Unnatural Death. New York: Random House, 1989.

Bailey, F. Lee with Harvey Aronson. The Defense Never Rests. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1971.

Block, Eugene. Fabric of Guilt. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968.

Coppolino, Carl A. The Crime That Never Was. Tampa, Fla.: Justice Press, 1980.

Holmes, Paul. The Trials Of Dr. Coppolino. New York: New American Library, 1968.

MacDonald, John D. No Deadly Drug. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968.

Wilson, Colin and Donald Seaman. Encyclopedia of Modern Murder. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.