He went on to become an international symbol for foes of the death penalty. He is litigating from jail, his death penalty overturned but his conviction upheld by a federal judge in December after years of appeals and rallies. That decision is being appealed.
Judge Sabo went on to become the judge in whose courtroom more people were sentenced to death than any other in Pennsylvania.
For 15 years, Judge Sabo was among a dozen Philadelphia judges who heard only homicide cases. At least three other defendants brought before him were convicted of murdering police officers. He also presided over the 1988 trial of Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo.
According to a 1992 Inquirer article, he was the judge in 31 cases that resulted in the death penalty - the most in the state. One in six people sentenced to die in Pennsylvania were sentenced in Judge Sabo's courtroom. No other judge in the country had put as many people on death row, the article said.
"Some said he was a tough judge - and he was," said Judge David N. Savitt, a senior judge who has been hearing homicide cases for years. "But he was fair, he was honest, and he was devoted to his work."
Judge Sabo's son Mark said that all his father "ever tried to do was the right thing. He wanted justice done. Period. To me, he was the epitome of what a man should be. He was honest, he had integrity, and, quite frankly, he was my hero."
Higher courts regularly were asked to consider whether the defendants sentenced in Judge Sabo's courtroom were deprived of a fair trial. In 1987, defense attorney Richard Sprague contended in court that no criminal defendant could get a fair trial before him.
Judge Sabo offered a succinct defense. "I'm a tough judge," he said in a 1992 Inquirer interview. "I didn't commit the crime. I was only the mechanic through which the jury verdict was carried out."
Judge Sabo was considered by many pro-prosecution, but Savitt said that "to the extent that human frailties permit, defendants get fair trials in Philadelphia courtrooms - including Judge Sabo's. Despite that some defense lawyers wanted to avoid him, he had a work ethic and a sense of justice, and he concerned himself with that."
In the Abu-Jamal case, the "conviction has been supported by the record," Savitt said.
Judge Sabo began his career on the bench in January 1974 after spending 16 years as a Philadelphia undersheriff, beginning in 1957. He also practiced law privately. He became a senior judge in December 1990 and was transferred to the civil division. He retired in 1998.
Judge Sabo graduated from Roman Catholic High School in 1938 before earning a bachelor's degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1942. He earned a law degree from Penn in 1949.
He belonged to the Philadelphia and American Bar Associations, the American Judicature Society, the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges, and the National Sheriff's Association.
Judge Sabo was honored several times, including by the Chapel of Four Chaplains and the Catholic War Veterans as man of the year. In 2001, he received service awards from the County and State Detectives Association of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Emerald Society.
An Army Air Corps veteran of World War II, Judge Sabo was one of the organizers and the first post commander of St. Agnes Post 1132 of the Catholic War Veterans.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 40 years, Helen; another son, Gregory; and a granddaughter.
A viewing will begin at 9 a.m. tomorrow at Kociubinsky Funeral Home, 307 E. Girard Ave. A Funeral Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. at St. Agnes-St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, Fourth and Brown Streets. Burial will be at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham.
Memorial donations may be made to the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Danville, Pa. 17821.
Contact Rusty Pray
at 215-854-2322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.