By MICHAEL T. BURKHART and MIKE DANIELS
Once a highly respected clergyman and community leader, Rabbi Fred J. Neulander will likely spend the rest of his life as just another number in the state prison system.
On Friday, after hearing the rabbi plead for mercy, a jury failed to agree whether he should get a life sentence or die by injection for having his wife, Carol, murdered.
As a result, he will face a minimum of 30 years when he is sentenced Jan. 16 by Superior Court Judge Linda G. Baxter. The 61-year-old rabbi will not be eligible for parole until 2030.
"Justice has, at last, fully been served," said Carol Neulander's younger sister, Margaret Miele.
"We have the utmost respect for this jury," said Miele, who also testified for the state. "And we applaud them for returning to Carol the dignity she exhibited in life and for giving us the freedom to at last begin the healing process."
Defense attorney Michael Riley expressed satisfaction that his client escaped the death penalty.
"A lot of anxiety went out of him," Riley said of the rabbi. "He was very tense all day."
When Neulander took the witness stand Friday morning, the founder of Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill spoke to jurors as though he were delivering a sermon.
"I am here to offer a plea for my life," Neulander said.
He used a passage from the book of Genesis to demonstrate to jurors his life - "the days of the years of my life" - could still have value.
Neulander never admitted guilt or apologized for his wife's death. In fact, Riley said Neulander maintains his innocence and plans an appeal.
Neulander told the jury that he "loved and loves" his wife, Carol, who was found lying in a pool of blood at their Cherry Hill home on Nov. 1, 1994. Leonard Jenoff and Paul Michael Daniels confessed to murdering the 52-year-old woman. Prosecutors said Neulander planned the murder so he could continue a love affair with former Philadelphia radio host Elaine Soncini.
Dr. Matthew Neulander, the rabbi's older son, lashed out at his father's comments Friday afternoon.
"His words this morning were absolutely galling, absolutely so inappropriate, so frustrating and maddening, and yet so like him," Matthew Neulander told Court TV.
"That he would sit there as a guilty, convicted felon and eulogize my mother. It's a disgrace and an accurate reflection of the man he is."
Both Matthew Neulander and his sister, Rebecca Neulander Rockoff, testified against their father. However, in the penalty hearing their brother, Benjamin Neulander, asked the jury to spare his father's life.
None of the three were in court for the verdict or the sentencing decision.
Carol Neulander's siblings and their spouses stood behind Camden County First Assistant Prosecutor James Lynch as he addressed reporters after the sentencing verdict. The family was in court every day during the trial.
"I'm very happy because, in my opinion, the interests of justice have been served," said Lynch, who tried this case and the first trial in Camden last fall. That trial ended with the jury deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction.
Jurors took less than two hours to decide they couldn't agree on a punishment for Fred Neulander.
As the jury forewoman read the verdict, Neulander was stonefaced, much as he was throughout the monthlong trial.
Carol Neulander's family also appeared subdued, although Miele choked up and fought tears while reading the statement to the media.
At least one juror was disturbed by Neulander's profession of love for the wife he had murdered.
"If all that's true," juror Jeff Marks remembers thinking, "then why'd you have her killed?"
But Marks said jurors believed that the rabbi did have something to offer other inmates, no matter how horrible his crime.
"I wouldn't say he was evil his whole life," he said.
Jurors were calm in the deliberations that led Wednesday to a guilty verdict, and were not overly concerned about whether the rabbi got the death penalty, Marks said.
"Common sense tells you it would have been appealed," he said. "There's really not much difference between the death penalty and 30 years."
Just before 9:30 a.m. Friday, Neulander stood and approached the witness stand, ready to give the most important speech of his life. He placed his left hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth.
He smiled sheepishly as he adjusted the microphone and greeted the jurors, who responded to him with blank stares.
Neulander told the jury about Carol, his wife of 29 years, who was "first and foremost" in his life. He said his wife had talents she applied to her family and to others whom she met.
The rabbi admitted his past actions were reprehensible and disgraceful, but said he wanted to grow old with his wife.
"I miss her and I loved her and I love her," he said. " Now there are those who I'm sure behind their hands would snicker. I have acknowledged for the longest time my behavior that was reprehensible. ... And yet you must believe I loved her."
The rabbi went on to tell the jury that he would do good if his life was spared. He said he plans to teach inmates how to read.
"I promise that I will do whatever a teacher should do to enrich the lives of people who come in contact with that teacher," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you give me this privilege to redeem, to atone, what will happen is the days of the years of your life will indirectly be made more rich because you've given me the privilege in the days of the years of my life to reach out and change for the better."
Lynch never asked the jurors to take Neulander's life, but said they should look at the state's evidence that the rabbi paid to have his wife killed. He presented no witnesses or victim impact statements at the request of Carol Neulander's family.
But Lynch said the jury did not have to believe Neulander loved his wife.
"You heard the man," Lynch said. "You saw the manner of his testimony. You decide."
Riley said the jury should balance the state's allegation against factors such as Neulander's age, the fact that he has no criminal record, and that he helped many people and organizations. He said no social good would come from sending the rabbi to his death.
"You have a decision to make that you have to live with for the rest of your lives," Riley said. "The decision of death is irreversible."
Reach Michael T. Burkhart at (856) 486-2474 or email@example.com