Senior Judge Berel Caesar; Victim Of Building Accident

Posted: October 10, 1997

Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Berel Caesar, 69, of Center City, died yesterday from injuries suffered when he was hit on the head by debris let loose when a large sign pulled away from a Center City garage building Sunday afternoon.

He had been in the neurological intensive-care unit at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital since the accident.

``Judge Caesar was a brilliant jurist and a wonderful man, and I was proud to know him and regarded him as a friend,'' Mayor Rendell said yesterday. ``Judge Caesar's death only deepens the city's resolve to deal with the problems of dangerous buildings in Philadelphia.''

The three-story building, on Broad Street near Pine, was cited by the Department of Licenses and Inspections in 1993 for having a weakened facade. But the city's attempts to reach the owner - the estate of real estate speculator Sam Rappaport - then and in 1996 were unsuccessful, and the structural problems were never fixed.

Mr. Caesar was a Philadelphia native, and graduated from West Philadelphia High School in 1945, Swarthmore College in 1948, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1954.

Admitted to the bar in 1955, he was a partner in the firm of Rubin, Leib and Caesar, and had been Democratic chairman of the 61st Ward before being appointed to the bench by Gov. Milton Shapp in 1974.

Defeated in a primary election the following spring, he was reappointed by Shapp that same year, then won election to the bench in his own right in 1977.

``Judge Caesar had a remarkable career in the Philadelphia legal community,'' said Clifford E. Haines, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar. He called Mr. Caesar ``gracious and conscientious . . . well-known for his gentle and kind manner.''

But in 1978, Mr. Caesar provoked a storm of outrage when a rapist he put on probation was rearrested for an attempted rape within two weeks of his release.

The jurist was almost universally condemned for his leniency, and Women Organized Against Rape and other civic organizations demanded his removal from the bench.

But even when the outcry was most vehement, defense lawyers and prosecutors who had appeared before Mr. Caesar said they considered him conscientious, fair and knowledgeable - and not lenient.

That view was confirmed a few months later when the Citizens Crime Commission of Philadelphia reviewed the judge's record and determined that he was ``neither more lenient nor more severe'' in his sentencing than other judges. In fact, he ordered sentences of two years or more for a greater proportion of offenders than other judges.

When the rapist, Luis Hernandez, came before him again, Judge Caesar conceded that he ``may have erred'' earlier and sent him to jail for seven to 20 years for the first rape and an additional two to 10 years for the attempted rape.

The tempest was calmed, and Mr. Caesar continued to serve quietly until the time of his death.

``He was a quiet man, a low-key judge,'' said Common Pleas Court President Judge Alex Bonavitacola, who called him diligent, hard-working and patient in dealing with the complex medical and product-liability cases he had been handling the last five years.

``He was a good judge and a good person,'' Bonavitacola said.

Mr. Caesar was active in mental health causes, serving as vice chairman and acting chairman of the first Philadelphia Mental Health and Mental Retardation Advisory Board. He wrote and lectured on mental health and was a former chairman of the Philadelphia Bar Association's Mental Health Committee.

He was a member and former president of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel, and was active in B'nai B'rith, the Federation of Jewish Agencies, and other organizations.

Survivors include his wife, Joan Coleman Caesar; a son, Neil; a daughter, Miriam; and two grandchildren.

Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks, 6410 N. Broad St. Burial will be at Shalom Memorial Park, Lower Moreland.

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