This case study has a vibe right out of an “Anurag Kashyap movie”. It has just too many characters, two suspicious deaths occurring years and a thousand miles apart, money, infidelity, undetectable poison, betrayals and groundbreaking science.
This is an important case study from forensic perspective, you will get to know at the end. Read on!!
This murder mystery is set up in the early 1960s. Carl Coppolino and his wife, Carmela, were a well-off, 30-something couple, living in New Jersey. Carl practiced as an anesthesiologist while Carmela was a medical doctor herself .
Soon Carl developed some heart condition which kept him away from practicing. He started writing books on fitness and stuff.
THE DEATH OF CARMELA COPPOLINO
A late-night telephone call to a physician, Dr. Juliette Karow brought her to the Longport Key, Florida, home of Dr. Carl and Carmela Coppolino. Carl had called for Dr. Karow’s help because Carl believed Carmela was dying of heart attack. Dr. Karow arrived to find Carmela beyond help.
The investigating officer was satisfied that Dr. Karow had correctly listed the cause of death, so he did not apply the law that required that an autopsy be performed.
Carmela Coppolino’s body, unexamined by anyone, was then buried in her family’s plot in her home state of New Jersey.
A month later, Carl married a moneyed socialite, Mary Gibson, a wealthy widow.
THE DEATH OF WILLIAM FABER
News of Carl’s marriage infuriated Marjorie Farber.
WHO IS MARJORIE FARBER?
Lt. Col. William E. Farber, a career Army officer, and his wife, Marjorie. The Farber couple were both nearly 20 years older than the doctors and were living in doctor’s neighborhood in New Jersey.
Carl and Marjorie had an affair and as per Marjorie were also thinking of running away from their partners and marital life.
This is the backdrop of Faber story!!
When Marjorie got to know about Carl’s remaariage to Mary after his wife’s death, she had an interesting story to recount to investigators.
Her husband’s death two years before, although ruled to be from natural causes, had actually been murder!
Carl had given Marjorie (when they were in a relationship) a syringe containing some medication and told her to inject her husband, William, while he was sleeping.
Marjorie claimed, she was unable to inject the full dose and called Carl, who finished the job by suffocating William with a pillow.
In an ironic twist, Carl called his wife, Carmela, to sign William Farber’s death certificate. She listed the cause of death, at Carl’s insistence,as coronary artery disease. Such deaths are rarely questioned, and the Department of Health accepted the certificate without any inquiry.
After the death of William, Marjorie’s husband, the doctor couple shifted to Florida.
Marjorie Farber’s astonishing story was supported in part by Carl’s recent increase in his wife’s life insurance. Carmela’s $65,000 policy, along with his new wife’s fortune. This led suspicions of investigators towards him.
Based on this information, authorities in New Jersey and Florida now obtained exhumation orders for both William Farber and Carmela Coppolino.
After examination of both bodies, Dr. Coppolino was charged with the murders of William and Carmela.
Officials decided to try Dr. Coppolino first in New Jersey for the murder of William Farber. Coppolino was represented by the famous defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. The Farber autopsy did not reveal any evidence of poisoning, but seemed to show strong evidence of strangulation.
The absence of toxicological findings left the jury to acquit Carl for William’s murder.
The Florida trial presented another chance to bring Carl Coppolino to justice. Officials called on the experienced New York City medical examiner Dr. Milton Halpern and his colleague, toxicologist Dr. Charles Umberger, to determine how Carl Coppolino had killed his wife.
Recalling Dr. Coppolino’ s career as an anesthesiologist, Halpern theorized that Coppolino had exploited his access to the many potent drugs used during surgery to commit these murders, specifically an injectable paralytic agent called succinylcholinechloride.
After having Carmela’s body exhumed, Halpern examined her body with a magnifying glass in search of an injection site. He found that Carmela had been injected in her left buttock shortly before her death.
Now Dr. Umberger’s needed to prove the administration of succinylcholine chloride by chemical analysis of Carmela’s tissues.
This presented a serious problem because succinylcholine was purported to be untraceable in human tissue. The drug breaks down in the body to succinic acid and choline, both of which are naturally occurring chemicals in the human body. The chemical method necessary to make this determination did not exist at the time of the murder.
Ultimately, Dr. Umberger developed a completely novel procedure for detecting succinylcholine chloride. He isolated elevated levels of succinic acid in Carmela’s brain, which proved that she had received a large dose of the paralytic drug shortly before her death.
This evidence, along with the finding of the same drug residues in the injection site on her buttock, was presented in the Florida murder trial of Carl Coppolino. He was charged with second degree murder on Carmela but acquitted from the William murder because no evidence of injection was there.
Case was lost because the legal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” was not met.
On appeal, the defense raised an interesting point of law. Can a defendant be convicted of murder based on a series of tests that were specifically devised for this case? Tests that indirectly showed that Carmela had been injected with succinylcholine chloride had never before been used in a criminal trial. The court ruled that the novelty of a scientific method does not preclude its significance to a criminal prosecution.
Just because an otherwise valid method was developed specifically for this trial and had not yet been proven in court did not mean that the murderer should be allowed to get away with the perfect crime.
Whatever the reasoning, the decision saved Coppolino from Death Row. Instead, the 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.
IMPORTANCE OF THIS CASE STUDY
This case did not meet the Frye Standard and thus Carl was charged with second degree only.
What is Frye standard?
The Frye standard or general acceptance test is a test used in United States courts to determine the admissibility of scientific evidence. It provides that expert opinion based on a scientific technique is admissible only when the technique is generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community.
Since the test for succinylcholine chloride was novel and performed first time in this case, the method was not validated and accepted in scientific community. Resulting in almost acquittal of Carl who was charged with two gruesome murders.
In many but not all US States , the Frye standard has been superseded by the Daubert standard. States still following Frye include: California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington.