The Story Behind Rabinowitz's Plea Lawyer And Client Talked About Morality. Then, A Surprise Guilty Plea.

Posted: November 02, 1997

Frank DeSimone knew early on.

DeSimone's client, Craig Rabinowitz, was insisting he hadn't murdered his wife, and letting his lawyers hint around that an intruder had. But DeSimone knew.

He'd hired an expert to second-guess the official finding - that Stefanie Rabinowitz had been strangled April 29 in her Main Line house, with the doors and windows locked and only her husband and baby home. But the expert had come up empty.

It took more talks with Rabinowitz, a few polygraphs, and some other bits of evidence to convince DeSimone. By June, the lawyer said, ``I knew almost exactly what he'd done.''

That knowledge set in motion an unusual relationship between two very different men, a relationship that played a part in bringing the so-called Main Line murder case to its stunning conclusion last week.

It was DeSimone, Rabinowitz said in his courtroom confession on Thursday, who gave him the words to explain how he came to kill his wife: ``I had a moral disconnect.''

DeSimone, 52, who has been prosecutor and defense lawyer in murder cases for decades, has seen horrible things before. ``There's a lot of tough cases,'' he said, but ``this was an emotional one.''

His words were echoed by others who had slept and breathed the case for the last six months - lawyers, investigators, even a coroner who boasts of having performed 28,000 autopsies. Each, accustomed to dealing professionally with murders, in his or her own way took this one personally - and none more so than DeSimone.

Of course, the lawyers are paid - DeSimone won't say how much. And they were far less affected than the loved ones close to Stefanie Rabinowitz, the Bryn Mawr College graduate, mother and Center City lawyer who was found dead in a bathtub shortly before her 30th birthday.

Risa Vetri Ferman, the assistant prosecutor, came to identify with Stefanie as a lawyer, young mother and Jewish woman, and to have a deep respect for her mother, Anne Newman. Coroner Halbert Fillinger Jr., explaining that wife-murders are rarely so calculated, called this one ``a diabolical thing.'' First Assistant District Attorney Bruce Castor Jr. was so electrified with prosecutorial zeal that he said he was upset at first when Rabinowitz folded.

``All of the ammunition was there,'' Castor said, ``and I wanted to pull the trigger.''

As for DeSimone, he found himself talking to a client about his own Catholic-school training. Contemplating how close any person is to sin. Balking at the idea of giving a jury a Rabinowitz defense based mostly on reasonable doubt - which is what he said he would have had to have done.

* It's hard to know if the talks between Rabinowitz and his lawyers went exactly as DeSimone recalls them. Rabinowitz, sentenced to life in prison, isn't giving interviews, and the other lawyer, Jeffrey Miller, couldn't be reached for comment for this article.

But on Thursday, as he stood in the soft afternoon sun outside the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, just after his client had pleaded guilty, Frank DeSimone described a remarkable series of dialogues in a small meeting room at the county prison.

In that room, DeSimone said, he talked with Rabinowitz over six months, answering his many questions, and eventually seeing his client come to admit that he'd been living ``two parallel lives.'' In one life, Rabinowitz, 34, was a loving husband and father. In the other - at least as prosecutors have portrayed it - he was a swindler, obsessed with a stripper and plotting to kill the wife who had been his summer-camp sweetheart.

It was last week, DeSimone said, that Rabinowitz told him, ``I wish somebody like you would have stopped me when I was in that other life.''

Their conversations hadn't begun like that. Back in May, the defense team's pathologist, Walter Hofman, decided that Stefanie had indeed been strangled - and in a house that Rabinowitz had already told police was locked that night.

``I knew at that point,'' DeSimone said on Friday, ''that there was not going to be an intruder here.''

From there, he said, he explored other theories: Was there a fight? That could mean voluntary manslaughter. Mitigating factors? Perhaps third-degree murder.

Meanwhile, police had found the now-famous piece of paper on which they say Rabinowitz calculated how much insurance money he would gain from his wife's death; and in her blood, they found a double dose of sleeping pills from a prescription her husband had filled the day before her death.

DeSimone and co-counsel Miller had Rabinowitz take polygraph tests in prison. They went over 10 or 12 different defenses. But by June, DeSimone said, ``from my years of experience as a prosecutor, from the questions he was asking, the physical evidence and investigations I did. . . . I

knew . . . ''

Some of Rabinowitz's questions, he said, had to do with guilt. What if he lost in court? If he appealed, would the case drag on till his daughter was old enough to hear about it?

What if he pleaded guilty?

``Four months into the case,'' DeSimone recalled, ``we weren't talking about the case anymore.''

Instead, they were talking about Rabinowitz's past.

``I was trying to talk to him at that point about morality . . . because I thought he needed that,'' the lawyer said. ``Jeff [Miller] would say to him, `Craig, what happened here? You don't look like the type of person who should be in jail.' '' DeSimone mused that Rabinowitz came from a wonderful family; there was no painful childhood, no obvious life difficulty that would easily explain the crime.

He said he did not lobby Rabinowitz to plead guilty, but advised him: ``You focus on your family, your wife, your children, your religion . . . I had a nun in grade school who said a liar is a cheater is a stealer. . . . If you begin by lying, you move to the next thing. You don't have this moral check on yourself.''

It's unclear if Rabinowitz ever fully leveled with his lawyers. DeSimone and Miller won't say whether he told them exactly how the murder unfolded.

But finally, at 9 on the night before trial, in the prison's cramped meeting room, Rabinowitz told his lawyers of his decision to plead guilty.

In court the next day, there seemed to be echoes of the prison talks. ``It starts on a very small scale,'' Rabinowitz said of his own fall, ``and it gets a little bit bigger. . . . and you begin to think what you're doing is right, when absolutely you, society, knows that it's wrong.''

DeSimone, a man who lets it be known that he attends Mass daily, said the case had reinforced his own view: that you have to work at leading a moral life, that it is easy to slip from that path, and that once you slip, it's easy to slip further.

``Everyone is only an inch away from that,'' he said. Rabinowitz is ``a regular guy. He went to Lower Merion High School, one of the guys. . . . It makes me really understand how doing right, being a good person, takes discipline. . . . We're all on that little teeter-totter. . . . You've got to stay in shape morally.''

DeSimone did what he always does for trials: He tried to put himself in the prosecutors' shoes.

That shook him.

As a father of two sons, he said, he quickly imagined the speech that prosecutors would give to convince a jury of the ``hardness of heart'' needed to prove first-degree: ``He killed his baby's mother. Little Haley's mother he killed. Parents give their children everything. . . . if there's only a little chill you make sure they have a sweater on, but, members of the jury, taking away your baby's mother . . . ''

Then, DeSimone said, he pictured the jurors, shipped in from western Pennsylvania - ``wonderful, nice people, very much law-and-order. They're going to see all this money being thrown around, and this baby in the crib, and this dead girl working'' to support her family.

And then, he said, as a defense lawyer, ``you've got to stand up in front of them and argue reasonable doubt.''

* Prosecutor Risa Ferman, too, found herself focused on Haley's mother.

``I really have thought a lot about Stefanie,'' she said Friday. ``I feel I know her.'' She rejected the notion that Rabinowitz knew of, and tolerated, her husband's secret life: ``She was smart, she was a wonderful mother, she didn't lack for self-esteem. Part of his con was just being this wonderful, devoted, caring person. . . . I think she died thinking she had a perfect marriage.''

Ferman, a mother of two, also said she admired Stefanie's mother, Anne Newman, for her plans to let Haley stay in touch with Craig's relatives. Though the opposite would be a natural reaction, Ferman said, ``She's determined to do things right.''

Though Ferman, like DeSimone, has seen terrible things - she heads the county sex-crimes unit - she said this one stood out as ``a morbid, disgusting, despicable chain of events.'' Also unique, she said, was such a late confession. Usually, she said, suspects confess right away or never. If it was sincere, she said, why didn't it happen months ago?

``I just look at my own family and my own children,'' she said. ``It makes me very thankful for what's there, and just confused about what other people do.''

The lead prosecutor, Castor, 36, had a different reaction. For one thing, he felt as if he was on trial. And Castor pointed to the man he had helped convict of strangling a 2-year-old and her mother. ``The level of evil is not new,'' he said. ``Think of Caleb Fairley strangling the little baby.''

What he felt most deeply, he said, was the satisfaction of putting together all the tiny pieces of circumstantial evidence into a case he considered airtight - and the pressure he felt to win a first-degree conviction.

Otherwise, ``The whole world would think, Bruce Castor screwed it up, and that can be uncomfortable, especially for someone who hopes to some day be D.A.''

On the courthouse steps Thursday, Castor's voice rang out from the terrace, where he had propped up his court exhibits to argue his Case-That-Would-Have-Been to TV cameras, passersby, county employees on lunch breaks.

Nearby, coroner Fillinger chatted with longtime friend DeSimone. Fillinger, wearing a tie that bore a reproduction of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, said he had worried that the case's supercharged atmosphere would lead to ``a professional p-ing contest'' between DeSimone and ``the kid.'' He meant Castor, who in the 1980s lost a big murder case to DeSimone and Miller.

DeSimone brushed that aside. A minute later, Castor walked up. They shook hands. ``Good job,'' DeSimone said.

Then DeSimone and Fillinger began trading war stories, in this instance, about past murder cases in Philadelphia, where DeSimone had been a prosecutor.

``I used to hate seeing bad guys get off,'' Fillinger said.

``So did I,'' DeSimone said. ``So did I.''

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