Murder investigation continues in lawyer's death

By Ben Finley and Matt Coughlin
The Intelligencer
February 2009

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The investigation into the assassination-style murder of a Northampton attorney last week has passed the 48- to 72-hour mark when police would normally hope to be on the trail of the killer.

Experts agree that the more time that elapses from when Eric Birnbaum was killed Wednesday morning outside a law firm, the harder the case will be to solve.

But cases do break later than that.

Bucks County First Assistant District Attorney David Zellis said the death of Rhonda Smith is a prime example. At first, investigators weren't sure if it was a homicide or a suicide.

"Through the determination and the guile of investigators we were able to solve and convict (Mary Jane) Fonder of her murder," Zellis said.

That break developed over time. Detectives noted Fonder was among the Upper Bucks church members and they had interviewed her 14 years earlier after her father's disappearance. Three months after Smith's death police were able to arrest Fonder.

Zellis said that, like the Fonder case, it's possible authorities already have the clue that will break the case but don't have the context yet to know it.

Zellis declined to discuss specifics about Birnbaum's murder, but said, "We are looking into every avenue that we can possibly look at. It's going to take time and patience."

And a lot of that time will be consumed as authorities continue to comb through Birnbaum's personal and professional life.

The 51-year-old personal injury attorney was entrenched in the Philadelphia area's legal community, working dozens of cases.

Birnbaum has ongoing cases in Bucks, Montgomery, Philadelphia courts as well as federal court. He filed nine in Bucks since last year and all appear to be personal injury suits. He was also scheduled to appear in court Friday to represent a client in a DUI case. The case has been continued to a date in March.

Defendants in his civil cases include numerous private individuals, the city of Philadelphia, Philadelphia police, the Philadelphia prison system, government officials, a few suburban townships and several national insurance companies.

One Philadelphia area attorney, Steven M. Schain, told the National Law Journal last week that Birnbaum "worked like a dog."

That's why a homicide expert and a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist said the first place they would look for Birnbaum's killer is in his case files.

This wouldn't be the first time a lawyer - even a personal injury attorney - was killed by a disgruntled client or an adversary on the other side of the table, experts said.

For a homicide expert looking at the case from the outside, the killing looks like a contract job.

"This sounds like a planned hit," said Vernon Geberth, a retired lieutenant commander of the New York City Police Department and author of the widely circulated textbook "Practical Homicide Investigation."

Birnbaum was killed in the parking lot of Terry D. Goldberg and Associates, the Buck Road law firm owned by his best friend.

After he parked his Acura about 9 a.m., Birnbaum walked a couple of steps toward the firm and began talking to a female coworker in the parking lot.

Then, a man in a dark cap and dark sunglasses walked up behind Birnbaum and fired once into the back of his head. Fearing for her life, the coworker ducked behind a car. The killer fled without having said a word to her or to Birnbaum before he shot him.

The fact that Birnbaum's killer didn't shoot or even threaten the witness says a lot about the crime, Geberth said.

"The way it was done was not the norm," he said. "Where is the emotion? The anger? There is none of that. He feels confident enough to walk away and not worry about the witness. That sounds like a professional hit man. That's a big factor."

Geberth said that the old adage that most homicide victims know their killers isn't true anymore.

"Stranger homicides have definitely been on the increase in the last few years," he said.

National statistics compiled by the FBI show that of the 14,831 murders in 2007, 1,924 were known to be committed by a stranger, though the relationship between the victim and killer was unknown in 6,848 cases that year. There are roughly 14,000 to 15,000 murders a year in the U.S.

Geberth said the first place he would look for clues is Birnbaum's case file.

Violence against attorneys is not unheard of. Although no one has compiled the statistics, several lawyers have been murdered over the years by their clients or by the person being sued, experts said.

John Nicoletti, a Colorado-based police psychologist who focuses on law firm security, described the majority of such slayings as "avenger violence," which is akin to the post office shootings in the 1980s and the school shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech.

Nicoletti said that type of person believes an injustice was done to them - and they want to get even.

For instance, the client of an attorney may feel betrayed because the lawyer didn't get him what he wanted. Or, the person being sued feels they were victimized by the attorney and wants to get back at him.

Harold J. Bursztajn, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, added that divorce lawyers tend to run a high risk of being victims of this type of violence. But prosecutors, defense attorneys and personal injury lawyers have been killed, too, he said.

Bursztajn said the type of person who could commit such a crime often has a history of violence, is delusional or paranoid. Among the clients and defendants involved in Birnbaum's civil cases, at least three have been convicted of aggravated assault, one has an assault charge pending in district court and one has convictions for simple assault and carrying a firearm without a license.

Nicoletti, the Colorado-based psychologist, said Birnbaum's murder is not a good fit with what most avenger killers have done. He said shooters in avenger killings usually kill themselves at the scene of the murder, get killed by police or wait at the scene to be arrested. The latter was allegedly the case in last year's workplace shooting at the Simon & Shuster warehouse in Bristol.

But in Birnbaum's case, the killer simply killed and fled.

"That's what's unusual about this case," Nicoletti said. "It could be avenger by proxy (an upset client hiring a hit man), but that is more rare."

Also, Nicoletti said explicit threats often precede such killings. Police have declined to comment on any specific threats to Birnbaum or the people around him.

But Bursztajn, of Harvard Medical School, said he wouldn't rule out the possibility that Birnbaum was killed by a client or someone being sued.

"Sometimes threats precede the violence and sometimes they don't," he said.

Ben Finley can be reached at 215-949-4203 or email Matt Coughlin can be reached at 215-949-4203 or email

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