He'd claimed to be a victim, but died in jail for murder Jack Lopinson was convicted in '65. He confessed in '93.

Posted: May 03, 2002

Just before dawn on a spring day in 1964, a wounded Jack Lopinson phoned police to tell them that two crazed thieves had come into his Center City tavern and gunned down his wife and his business partner.

That phone call set off one of the most notorious murder cases in Philadelphia history.

His wife, a 25-year-old artist, had been shot four times in the face. The body of his business partner lay near her in the basement at Dante's Inferno on Chestnut Street, shot three times in the head.

Last month, Lopinson, 64 and long forgotten by the public, died in Graterford Prison, where he was serving a life sentence for the murders.

When the bodies were discovered, Lopinson - who had been shot in the leg - won widespread sympathy as the grieving husband and victim of "merciless violence," as police searched for the thieves.

That image evaporated, however, as police began to paint a different portrait of Lopinson - as a womanizer, a loan shark, and a man who spoke of wanting to "get rid of" his wife and of knowing a hit man who could do the job.

His seven-week trial in 1965 played to packed courtrooms and made front-page news. It pitted two legal titans - Richard A. Sprague, then an assistant district attorney, as the prosecutor, and A. Charles Peruto Sr. as the court-appointed defense attorney.

The star witness against Lopinson was Frank "Birdman" Phelan, a former collection agent in Lopinson's loan-shark business.

Phelan chilled the courtroom with his testimony that he had killed Judy Seflin Lopinson and Joseph "Joe Flowers" Malito at his boss's behest and then shot Lopinson in the leg to make it look like a robbery. He had been paid $10,000, he said. Phelan was sentenced to life in prison.

Lopinson was found guilty and sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the death penalty had been improperly applied, because potential jurors who opposed capital punishment were excluded from serving. The sentence was commuted to life in prison.

For years, Lopinson protested his innocence and denied any involvement in the murder.

His former mother-in-law never believed it.

"Jack was a handsome, smooth, charming con man, and he had conned everybody at the prison," Rose Seflin told the parole board at a 1980 hearing. "He's just playing the game because he knows that's how you get the best of the system."

In an interview last night, Lopinson's attorney said that when the accused got on the witness stand, he was more concerned about being on "center stage" than about helping his own defense.

"He was a spinner of tales," Peruto said last night of his former client. "He saw himself as a handsome adventurer. His high hopes got him into trouble.

"He believed he had a great personality. He deluded himself," Peruto continued. "He bought everything he had with other people's money."

In 1993, when Lopinson filed a petition for clemency before the state Board of Pardons for a fifth time, he finally admitted his guilt.

In the petition, he said: "[I have] made my peace with God" and "[I have] gained the inner strength to accept fully the responsibility for my crimes and to truly feel remorse for those unconscionable acts."

The clemency petition was denied.

Lopinson died of cancer April 10 in the Graterford infirmary.

Before becoming ill in March he had been a bookkeeper at the prison. A native of Northeast Philadelphia, Lopinson had attended Temple University in the 1950s and studied accounting.

In 1978, while at Graterford, he married Diana Harrison, a volunteer at the prison.

"Jack was always a good person," she said. "He became a better person at Graterford."

She said that her husband had organized a walkathon at the prison to benefit Deborah Heart and Lung Center.

"He helped everyone," she said.

At Graterford he founded the Para-Professional Law Clinic and produced a legal-aid handbook for prisoners. For 19 years, he was a trusty and lived in a trailer outside the prison.

A memorial service was held at Graterford on April 12. Burial was private.

Contact Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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