Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Joel David Rifkin: New York's Most Prolific Serial Killer

Justice

Arraigned for the Bresciani homicide on July 15, 1993, Rifkin repeated his plea of not guilty. His lawyer Bob Sale sought to have Rifkins confession thrown out on grounds that police could not prove he was ever advised of his rights. Failing that, he sought to have the various murder charges consolidated in one Nassau County trial, hoping a hometown jury would be more inclined to find Rifkin not guilty by reason of insanity. A formal suppression hearing was scheduled for November, but Rifkin had other plans. Flexing his ego, he fired Sale and retained two new lawyers: former Nassau County assistant district attorney Michael Soshnick and his partner, John Lawrence.

The suppression hearing convened before Judge Ira Wexner on November 8, 1993, Soshnick and Lawrence picking up where Sale left off in the effort to quash Rifkins confession. They also sought to suppress his initial admission of Brescianis murder, made at the time of his arrest, while claiming that police had lacked sufficient probable cause for a legal search of Rifkins truck. Midway through the hearing, Assistant District Attorney Fred Klein offered Rifkin a sweetheart deal--46 years to life on all 17 murders, in return for a blanket guilty plea--but Rifkin refused the bargain, apparently convinced that he would be acquitted on grounds of insanity. As the hearing dragged on, Rifkins lawyers alienated Judge Wexner by Soshnick repeatedly arriving late for court and unprepared and Lawrence missing whole days. By March 1994 Wexner had heard enough to reject the various defense motions outright and hold Rifkin for trial, scheduled for mid-April. Rifkin responded to the news by firing Soshnick on the spot, leaving Lawrence, a lawyer with no criminal experience, to wage the battle alone.

Jury selection for Rifkins first trial, before Wexner, began on April 11, 1994. A panel of seven men and five women was seated nine days later, with opening arguments begun on April 20. Fred Klein described Rifkin as a sexual sadist who relished his victims suffering. Mladinich quotes from the trial: He got caught red-handed, and now hes using and abusing the concept of mental illness. Lawrence called his client a paranoid schizophrenic who lived in the twilight zone, overwhelmed by violent, irresistible compulsions that took control of his life. Rifkin, for his part, snored through much of the prosecutions case, a performance Lawrence blamed on allergies to the bologna sandwiches he ate in jail. Long Island psychiatrist Barbara Kirwin deemed Rifkins psychological test results the most pathological she had seen in 20 years of practice. Appearing for the state, Dr. Park Dietz--earlier a prosecution witness against Arthur Shawcross, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Hinckley--found Rifkin sick but not insane. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it.

Jurors agreed with Dietz, deliberating briefly on May 9 before they convicted Rifkin of murder and reckless endangerment (for leading police on the wild car chase).  Wexner gave Rifkin 25 years to life for murder, plus two and one-third to seven years on the lesser charge.

Even before he was sentenced, on May 9, 1994, Rifkin was transferred to Suffolk County, pending trial for the Evens and Marquez slayings. Another suppression hearing failed to quash his confession, whereupon Rifkin pleaded guilty on both counts, receiving two more consecutive terms of 25 years to life in prison. In November, he pleaded guilty to the Sanchez homicide in Queens and to three more counts in Brooklyn: victims Orvieto, Holloman and the Jane Doe killed in 1992. By January 1996, Rifkin was scheduled to serve at least 183 years for seven slayings, with 10 counts outstanding. Mladinich quotes Judge Robert Hanophy, passing sentence in the Sanchez case, who told spectators: It is not in my power to give Mr. Rifkin the sentence he deserves. In case there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want you to spend your second life in prison.

In 2002, New Yorks Supreme Court rejected Rifkins appeal of his convictions for the murder of nine women. His lawyer argued that his statements to the police at the time of his arrest should be suppressed because he had not been informed of his rights. 

Joel Rifkin is now serving 203 years to life in the Clinton, N.Y. correctional facility.  He will be eligible for parole in 2197.

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