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On Friday, the Rabbi Pleaded for His Life — and Was Spared

Last Friday, Rabbi Fred Neulander mounted the dais of the Monmouth County Court House in Freehold, N.J., and delivered what may have been the most important sermon of his life.

Just two days before, a jury of his peers had convicted him of capital murder, felony murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the Nov. 1, 1994, slaying of his wife, Carol.

Now, in the penalty phase of his trial, Neulander was taking the stand to deliver his “allocution,” his formal plea for his life, asking the jury to recommend a prison sentence rather than a sentence of death by lethal injection.

Speaking more in the voice of rabbi and teacher than of convicted killer, Neulander began his plea with a Torah lesson, taking a page from the book of Genesis as the rock on which to rest his argument.

In a dialogue between the Egyptian Pharaoh and Joseph, the rabbi taught, Pharaoh ostensibly asks Joseph how old he is. But one must look closely at the Hebrew to understand the true meaning of Pharaoh’s question, Neulander said, for he did not ask, “How many are the years of your life?” but rather, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”

“The question is: What did you do with the days of your life? How did you fill your days? It is not an issue of quantity of years; it’s an issue of the quality of your experience,” Neulander told the jury.

“I would like to use that as a benchmark for that which I speak to you of: myself in the past, the present and the future — which is in your hands, and you know that.”

In the 25 minutes that followed, Neulander used that benchmark again and again, delivering a long tribute to the wife he had been convicted of paying others to kill, and speaking of his daughter, Rebecca, and his sons, Matthew and Benjamin, and of his work and his hopes for the future.

Here is some of what he said:

“If I look at the days of the years of my life before Nov. 1, 1994, they were filled with great blessings, filled with people who made a difference in my life, and I hope I made a difference in theirs.

“First and foremost, I had my wife, Carol. She was a remarkable woman. She was bright. She had a sense of balance. . . . Carol also had a rare gift. She had great common sense. . . . Carol had grit and fortitude. . . . Great, great, grit. And Carol Neulander had class — not ‘classy,’ because that doesn’t even come close. And yet she wasn’t distant, and I miss her and I loved her and I love her. . . .

“I have acknowledged for the longest time my behavior that was reprehensible and disgraceful… and yet you must believe that I loved her and I love her. And I wanted to spend the days of the years of my life with her. We had a little dialogue. One of us would say to the other, ‘I want to grow old with you.’ And the other would lean over and say, ‘I want to grow old with you, too, but let’s do it slowly. . .”

“These were the days of the years of my life before the first of November, 1994. From that moment on, until Wednesday, when you made your decision, the days of the years of my life were dark, unproductive, diminished….

“Starting today, there is another succession of days that will unfold. I do not know where I will be, but wherever I will be, there will be men who cannot read. I would hope that wherever I am, I would be able to teach a young man to read…and enrich the days of the years of his life.

“Wherever I go, there will be a library, and I would hope to take whatever skills I bring to open up the world of reading to people. . . . Wherever I go, I will encounter young men who somehow have gotten lost in their high school career. I have helped tutor a young man to get his high school equivalency certificate. I am a good teacher. I was a good teacher. I can be a good teacher. That will enhance the days of the years of my life, by helping the days of the years of that young man’s life….

“That’s all I want — that opportunity to teach. That’s why I beseech you. I importune you. I beg of you for that privilege. And I promise, I promise I will do whatever a teacher should do to enrich the lives of people who come in contact with that teacher . . .”

Some 90 minutes later, the jury announced that it was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the death penalty.

Under New Jersey law, the 61-year-old Neulander must serve a term of at least 30 years in state prison with no possibility of parole.

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