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Carl Anthony COPPOLINO





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Parricide
Number of victims: 1 +
Date of murder: August 28, 1965
Date of birth: 1933
Victim profile: His wife, Dr. Carmela Musetto, 32
Method of murder: Poisoning (anaesthetic succinylcholine chloride)
Location: New Jersey/Florida, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on April 28, 1967. Paroled in 1979

Motive: So that he could marry his lover.

Crime: Coppolino was charged with killing his wife, Carmela at their home on Florida's Gulf of Mexico coast. He was also tried for murdering Colonel William E. Farber, the husband of his ex-lover Marjorie. However, he was acquitted from this offence.

Method: Coppolino gave Carmela an overdose in the form of an injection of the anaesthetic succinylcholine chloride.

Sentence: Coppolino was charged with second degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 12 years, before being let out for good behaviour.

Interesting facts: An overdose of succinylcholine chloride is difficult to detect in the body, as succinic acid and choline are found naturally in the body. To be able to prove this was the cause of Carmela's death, toxicologst Dr Joseph Umberger had to devise a test, which in June 1966 he succeeded in doing.

Coppolino was an experienced anaesthetist, who had had to give up work at an early age due to ill health. So he had the knowledge and the means to kill Carmela in this way.

It was claimed that Coppolino had also killed Farber in the same way. When he was exhumed, it was discovered that his cricoid cartilage was fractured, which suggested that he had been strangled. In court it was claimed that this damage could have occurred during exhumation, and that he had sufficient arteriosclerosis to have died of a heart attack, as was originally supposed.


Tracing the Untraceable

Friday, May. 05, 1967

After his acquittal in New Jersey last year on charges of murdering his some time mistress' husband, Dr. Carl Coppolino appeared a sure bet to beat the less likely charge that he had murdered his own wife. Since there was not even any public evidence that she had died unnaturally, the case against Coppolino seemed flimsy indeed. Yet last week, when the twelve male jurors in Naples, Fla., returned their verdict after less than four hours of deliberations, the retired physician was pronounced guilty of second-degree murder.

The lean, hook-nosed Coppolino, 34, was caught up by the patient, plodding groundwork laid by Prosecutor Frank Schaub, 45. In contrast with the flamboyant forensics of F. Lee Bailey, 33, Coppolino's cocky Boston attorney, Schaub wove a damning case showing that Coppolino had the motive, opportunity and, most of all, the scientific background for committing the murder.

It was done, he demonstrated in minute, Sherlockian fashion, by an injection of the drug succinylcholine chloride, which hitherto had been thought to be undetectable in the human body.

Murderous Motive. With surgical thoroughness, Schaub showed that Coppolino obtained a lethal amount of succinylcholine chloride — supposedly for animal experiments — from a friend a month before Dr. Carmela Coppolino's death Aug. 28, 1965, at the age of 32.

Schaub had a witness testify that the death was wrongly ascribed to a heart attack because Coppolino persuaded a physician that she had suffered chest pains earlier. He called Carmela's father to relate how Coppolino claimed an autopsy had proved that a heart attack was the cause of death—though in fact no autopsy had been performed at the time.

Coppolino's deteriorating finances, Schaub charged, spurred his murderous motive. While the Coppolinos were living in New Jersey, Carmela earned $16,000 a year as a physician in a research laboratory. But when they moved to Sarasota, Fla., in April 1965 because of Coppolino's heart condition —which Schaub did his best to show was faked—Carmela flunked the state's medical examination, and could not work as a doctor. They were left to live on Coppolino's $22,000-a-year disability insurance, which was plainly not enough to sustain his high-living tastes plus losses in real estate speculations that amounted to $15,500 that year. Only three weeks before his wife's death, Coppolino increased by $10,000 the $55,000 in life insurance policies covering Carmela.

Early Marriage. Schaub called as a witness Coppolino's former mistress, Marjorie Farber, 53, but was prevented by a bench ruling from questioning her about the 1963 death of her husband, retired Army Colonel William Farber. In the New Jersey murder trial, the shapely widow had told a weird story of being hypnotized by Coppolino and standing helplessly aside while he smothered Farber with a pillow. Though it was Mrs. Farber who had aroused police suspicions against Coppolino after he spurned her for wealthy Divorcee Mary Gibson, 39, whom he married six weeks after Carmela's death, she had little to offer the current trial. Schaub called on a group of women who attended the same weekly bridge sessions as Coppolino and Mary; several of them testified that they were quite certain that the couple lived together before their marriage.

From experts, Schaub got all the help he needed on the obscure pharmacodynamical properties of succinylcholine chloride. As an anesthesiologist, Coppolino had had the opportunity to use it frequently on surgery patients to relax their muscles. Schaub proved to the jurors that it was also used on Carmela, injected into her left buttock in such massive dosage that it paralyzed and within minutes killed her. To carry the crux of his case, the prosecutor relied on the experts—and they came through with explicit, if esoteric evidence.

Although scientists never had before been able to find traces of the drug after it had been injected into a patient, pioneering experiments under the direction of veteran New York City Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Milton Helpern (who also had testified against Coppolino in the first trial) and his aide, Toxicologist Charles Joseph Umberger, revealed that there were components of it in Carmela's brain and liver. Try as Bailey might to refute their testimony by calling other medical witnesses, the New Yorkers' findings proved to be the clinching testimony.

"Are these experiments good enough for a jury to make a decision which can strike this defendant from the face of the earth?" thundered Bailey. The jury's answer was a blow to the criminal counselor, who gained fame only last year by winning acquittals for Dr. Sam Sheppard and Coppolino and liked to brag about having an impressive string of 19 victories in homicide cases. So far this year, with the conviction of the Boston Strangler, he has a string of two well advertised losses. Though Bailey vowed to appeal the verdict, a stunned Coppolino was led from the courtroom to prison to start serving his sentence of life. Mumbled he: "I just don't understand."


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 house—young women in their 30s rarely suffer coronary failure—but 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 cricoid—a cartilage in the larynx—was 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?"


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


"Did you fabricate this story?"


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


State v. Coppolino

223 So.2d 68 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1968), app. dismissed,
234 So.2d 120 (Fla. 1969), cert. denied, 399 U.S. 927 (1970)

Dr. Carl Coppolino, an anesthesiologist, lived with his wife, Dr. Carmela Musetto, in New Jersey. He developed a romantic relationship with his neighbor, Marjorie Farber. Her husband died in his sleep. The Coppolinos moved to Florida. The widow, Marjorie, followed, purchasing an adjacent lot. Carl asked Carmela for a divorce, so he could marry a rich divorcee, Mary Gibson, whom he met at a bridge club. A devout Italian Catholic, Carmela would not consent. Soon afterward, she died in her sleep. Five weeks later, Carl married Mary.

Marjorie Farber then reported to the police in Florida that Carl killed his wife — she knew, she said, because she helped him kill her husband! New Jersey authorities exhumed Carmela's body. The autopsy revealed a needle puncture mark in the left buttock, a healthy heart and no discernible cause of death. A later autopsy on Marjorie's husband produced evidence of death by strangulation, which was consistent with her story that Carl smothered him in his sleep.

Grand juries in New Jersey and Florida indicted Carl for homicide. The New Jersey trial, which came first, resulted in an acquittal. The jury in Florida returned a verdict of second degree murder, and Coppolino went to prison on a life sentence.

Toxicological testimony was vital evidence in the Florida case. The prosecution's theory was that Carl injected his victims with succinylcholine, a curare-like drug. Dr. Milton Helpern did the autopsies. His chief toxicologist, Joe Umberger, "worked on the tissues for a long time. [I]t was impossible by the methods of toxicologic analysis to find the original substance in the body, as succinylcholine is broken down within minutes to succinic acid and choline. Although these two compounds are normally present in dead tissue, they are there in such small quantities that ordinary techniques fail to detect them. Joe Umberger devised a method that would show up abnormally large amounts of the two substances but would not react with the minute quantities normally present. Using this technique, he eventually proved to his satisfaction that there was an abnormally high concentration of succinic acid in the organs of the body. He could not show that there was an excess in the left buttock itself, as he could not apply the technique to fatty tissue." Milton Helpern, Autopsy 30-31 (1977).

In addition, Dr. Bert LaDu, a pharmacologist on the NYU medical faculty, "found a positive reaction for [a monocholine derivative of succinylcholine that is stable in fat] around the needle track and a less intense reaction in the surrounding fat of the buttock, fading out as the distance from the needle puncture increased." Id. at 32.

The Florida courts managed to allow the prosecution to use this evidence while paying lip service to Frye:

In this case, unlike those involving lie detector tests or intoxication tests, there is a dearth of literature and specific case law to guide the trial and appellate courts. The trial court listened to the testimony of the expert witnesses and in an exercise of his discretion ruled that the tests in question were sufficiently reliable to justify their admission.

On appeal it is incumbent for defendant to show that the trial judge abused his discretion. This the defendant has failed to do. 223 So. 2d at 70-71.

This attempt to reconcile the admission of the toxicological tests with Frye is unconvincing, and the case is an extreme example of how courts in a Frye jurisdiction can overlook the general acceptance requirement when the evidence is too good to resist.


Dr. Carl Coppolino barbecuing hamburgers.



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