When a Doctor Does Murder

"If a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge." -Arthur Conan Doyle

”If a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.”—Arthur Conan Doyle

Exploring my physician-dad’s small medical library one day, I found what I thought was an odd titled book, The Practice of Hypnosis in Anesthesiology by Carl A. Coppolino, MD. And it was even autographed by the author.

But when I brought it to my dad’s attention, I got an even odder reaction. It was something he really didn’t want to talk about. Coppolino, who suffered from a serious heart condition, had been a patient of dad’s. Seems he also wasn’t a very nice guy.

Both dad and Coppolino served on the medical staff at Riverview Hospital in Red Bank, NJ in the early 1960s. My father and his medical partner, Dr. George Sheehan, were considered the top cardiology guys in the county at the time, so it was logical that Coppolino sought them out.

I don’t know the type or outcome of care provided by dad, but Coppolino’s health was so poor that by age 30, he had suffered several heart attacks, retired as a practicing anesthesiologist, and was collecting disability. A 1958 graduate of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, Coppolino had written several books on anesthesiology.

The subject of notorious national headlines some 50 years ago, Coppolino was tried for murder in 2 states—he was acquitted in New Jersey and convicted in Florida. In New Jersey, he was accused of murdering the husband of his mistress. In Florida, he was charged with killing his wife Carmela, also a physician. The 2 states would squabble as to who would try the young doctor first.

He was defended in both cases by the celebrated trial attorney, F. Lee Bailey. Back then Bailey was just coming into his own as the nation’s best defense lawyer. Bailey had made his legal bones defending another physician charged with murder. Dr. Sam Sheppard, an Ohio osteopath, had been in jail for over 10 years for the slaying of his wife Marilyn when Bailey got him sprung on appeal in 1966.

As a young man I had some thoughts about becoming a lawyer, so I followed Bailey’s career and found him fascinating, if flawed. He covers both doctor-murderer cases in his 1971 book, The Defense Never Rests. It’s good reading for interested doctors.

The 1966 case in New Jersey was murder-mystery novel paradise. Coppolino was charged with the death of a retired US Army Lt. Colonel, William Farber. He was the spouse of Marjorie Farber, the women with whom Coppolino was having a secret passionate affair. She was his neighbor, very attractive, and 20 years older.

The police believed Coppolino had smothered Farber in his sleep; Bailey argued that he died from natural causes. Mrs. Farber would testify that Coppolino had involved her in the deadly deed through hypnotism. In winning the case, Bailey would uncork the epic “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” line about the jilted Mrs. Farber.

In 1967, the legal action moved to western Florida where it was alleged that Coppolino had given his 32-year-old wife a lethal dose of succinylcholine chloride, a muscle relaxant then undetectable in the human body. (NJ prosecutors had thought that Col. Faber may have gotten a “perfect poison” injection as well.)

After having testified at his first trial—where Bailey found him to be an excellent witness on his own behalf—Coppolino refused to take the stand in Florida. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison but served just 12 years.

Paroled in 1979, a year later he wrote a book, The Crime That Never Was. "This is the story of a trial that should never have been held, of a sentence that should never have been passed, and of a conviction that should never have been upheld—for a crime that never happened,” Carl Coppolino wrote. I don’t know if he is alive today.

The subject of Carl Coppolino was something that really made my father uncomfortable. Dad admitted to me that just as Coppolino was going to be tried in the first murder case he received a long letter from him “explaining his woes,” said Dad. “I burned it—your mother insisted.” When I did my journalist push on dad for the juicy details, he said he couldn’t remember its contents. I can only imagine.