The Trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino
Exploring my physician-dad’s small medical book collection in Monmouth Beach one day, I found an oddly titled one, The Practice of Hypnosis in Anesthesiology written by Carl A. Coppolino, MD. And it was even inscribed by the author.
When I brought it to dad’s attention, I got an even odder reaction. It was something he really didn’t want to discuss. Dr. Coppolino, who suffered from a serious heart condition, had once been his patient. He was also quite the infamous physician. His story was a major sensation for months back in the mid-1960s and my dad was caught up in the middle of it.
Coppolino and my father were members of the medical staff at Riverview Hospital in Red Bank, NJ in the early 1960s. Dad and his medical partner, Dr. George A. Sheehan, Jr., were considered top cardiology doctors in Monmouth County at the time, so it was logical that Coppolino sought them out (dad would diagnose him with angina pectoris).
As fate would have it, the two men followed similar educational paths. Coppolino graduated Fordham University (1954) in the Bronx and the SUNY Downstate Medical Center (1958) in Brooklyn, just like my dad (1940 and 1943) had. I don’t know the type or outcome of care provided by dad back then, but Coppolino’s health was so poor that by age 30 he had already suffered several heart attacks, retired as a practicing anesthesiologist, and was collecting disability. Coppolino had also written several books and scientific papers on anesthesiology.
The subject of sensational national headlines some 50 years ago, Coppolino was tried for murder in two 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 32-year-old wife Carmela, also a physician. The two states would squabble as to who would try the wayward doctor first. Coppolino later called his NJ trial “the most laughable murder case” in state judicial history. Judge Elvin Simmill of the Monmouth County Superior Court in Freehold presided over the case; he was a former Speaker of the NJ State Assembly.
“If a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and knowledge.”
—Arthur Conan Doyle
The accused doctor was defended in both cases by the celebrated trial attorney, F. Lee Bailey. Much troubled today, back then Bailey was just coming into his own as the nation’s best criminal defense attorney. The Boston lawyer made his first headlines defending another physician convicted of murder. Dr. Sam Sheppard, an Ohio osteopath, had been in jail for over 10 years for the slaying of his wife Marilyn. Bailey argued Sheppard’s case before the US Supreme Court, got him sprung on appeal in 1966, and then won a retrial. Sheppard died in 1970.
As a young man I had thoughts about becoming a lawyer, so I followed Bailey’s career and found him a fascinating, if flawed, man. He covers both doctor-murder cases in his 1971 book, The Defense Never Rests. It was a best-seller then and is still very interesting reading today.
The December 1966 New Jersey case was murder-mystery novel paradise. Coppolino was charged with murdering retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel William Farber in July 1963. He was the spouse of Marjorie Farber, the women with whom Coppolino was having a secret passionate affair. Marge was the Coppolino’s Middletown neighbor (on Wallace Road), very attractive, and nearly 20 years older. Seeking a better climate for his health, Coppolino had moved his wife and two young daughter from New Jersey to Sarasota, Florida in 1965.
The police believed Coppolino had smothered Col. 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. Coppolino was acquitted in December 1966. It was the first murder trial defeat for Monmouth County Prosecutor Vincent Keuper since his appointment in 1953.
In February 1967, the legal action moved to Naples, Florida where it was alleged that Coppolino in August 1965 had given his wife a lethal dose of succinylcholine chloride, a muscle relaxant then undetectable in the human body (at their Bowsprit Lane home in Longboat Key, Fla.). NJ prosecutors also suspected that Col. Farber got 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 declined to take the stand in Florida. Shattering Bailey’s “brag about having an impressive 19-string victory in homicide cases,” Coppolino was convicted in April 1967 and sentenced to life in prison. He 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 matter of Carl Coppolino was something that 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 jailhouse-written letter from him: “explaining his woes,” dad said. When I did my journalist’s probe on dad for the juicy details, he said he couldn’t remember the contents. “I burned it,” he said, “your mother insisted.” I can only imagine.
Later on I found out that dad was also summoned to the Monmouth County jail where Coppolino had taken ill during the trial in 1966. He was still Coppolino’s physician. Again, my mom didn’t want him to be part of it, but dad went anyway.