Rabbi Fred J. Neulander, a founder of a large suburban Philadelphia congregation, was convicted Wednesday of murder and murder conspiracy in the bludgeoning death of Carol Neulander.
Prosecutors said the 61-year-old rabbi had his 52-year-old wife killed so he could continue an extramarital affair with a woman who hosted a Philadelphia radio show.
Friday morning, the rabbi pleaded with the jury to spare his life. He cited the Book of Genesis, in which the Egyptian pharaoh asks Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?" It was a recurring theme as he reviewed his life before and after the 1994 murder of his wife, Carol, in their suburban Philadelphia home.
"I have acknowledged for the longest time my behavior that was reprehensible and disgraceful, and yet you must believe I love her and loved her," Neulander said, prompting gasps from Carol Neulander's siblings who attended the hearing. Neulander said he would help promote literacy in prison if he was spared the death penalty. "I beseech you, I importune you, I beg you for that privilege," he said. One of his grown sons, two former congregants and a former associate rabbi also asked the jury to spare Neulander's life.
In the penalty phase, the jury had to weigh the aggravating factor of murder for hire against the mitigating factors that Neulander had no previous criminal record, that he has done good work for other people and his community, and that his age would make parole unlikely if he got a life term. A death sentence must be the unanimous choice of the jury.
The trial was the second for Neulander. The first trial a year ago ended in a hung jury, and Superior Court Judge Linda G. Baxter ordered the retrial moved to Monmouth County after heavy media coverage in the Philadelphia area. Neulander was charged with conspiracy to murder and being an accessory to murder in 1998.
The charges were upgraded to capital murder two years ago after private investigator Len Jenoff said he and his roommate killed Carol Neulander at the rabbi's asking for $30,000. Both Jenoff and Paul Daniels pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and agreed to testify against the rabbi. They are expected to be sentenced to 10- to 30-year prison terms.
Another key witness was Elaine Soncini, the former radio host who had a nearly two-year affair with the rabbi. Prosecutors said the rabbi snapped when Soncini said she wanted to break off their relationship. She also testified: "My increasing concern was that the man I loved had something to do with the murder of his wife and he was going to do it to me, too."
Neulander's formal sentencing was set for Jan. 16. Under state law, the judge must sentence him to a term of 30 years to life in prison without possibility of parole for 30 years.