Robert Sadoff, Psychiatrist Who Assessed Murder Defendants, Dies at 81


Captain MacDonald was cleared by the Army but indicted five years later. He remains in prison at 73.

In the du Pont case, Dr. Sadoff testified that the defendant was genuinely psychotic, not pretending to be. Mr. du Pont was ruled temporarily incompetent to stand trial; he then pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He was convicted, however, having been found to be mentally ill but not insane. He died in prison at 72 in 2010.

Dr. Sadoff estimated that he had evaluated as many as 10,000 defendants in criminal cases.

He taught at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote, co-wrote or edited a dozen books. Within the profession, he was perhaps best known as a medical ethicist, an exponent of what he called therapeutic jurisprudence.

Dr. Sadoff differentiated between the role of the clinician, who treats a patient, and that of a forensic psychiatrist, who makes assessments as an expert witness. The forensic psychiatrist’s judgment might lead to a patient’s imprisonment or even execution or, in a civil case, determine whether a plaintiff is entitled to compensation or treatment.

At the same time, though, he said the forensic psychiatrist had a responsibility to protect vulnerable patients from being exploited by skilled professional adversaries in the court system.

“The goal of forensic psychiatry is to seek justice and truth while respecting the rights of those who are examined,” he wrote in the book “Ethical Issues in Forensic Psychiatry, Minimizing Harm” (2011). “Forensic psychiatrists do not have the mandate of ‘First, do no harm.’ Their mandate is to seek truth and justice and to aid the legal process by striving for neutrality and objectivity, irrespective of which side of the adversary system they represent.”

Writing in the Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Dr. Thomas G. Gutheil described Dr. Sadoff as “one of the founding giants of the forensic psychiatry field” and hailed Dr. Sadoff’s book on ethical issues as providing valuable instruction “on the most appropriately civilized way in which to conduct oneself as a forensic psychiatrist.”

Robert Leslie Sadoff was born on Feb. 8, 1936, in Minneapolis to Max Sadoff and the former Rose Carroll, both pharmacists. Bob, as he was known, entered the University of Minnesota when he was 16.

“He was uncertain about his vocational direction until his father recounted his own unfulfilled dream of becoming a physician, with the apparent hope that the son would consider a career in medicine,” Dr. Gutheil and Frank M. Dattilio wrote in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 2008.

“Sadoff had mixed feelings about medicine,” they wrote, “but after reflection he decided to take an accelerated undergraduate course and head toward medical school.”

He graduated from the university in 1955 with two bachelor’s degrees, and earned his medical degree there, too. He interned at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles and did his residency at the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned a master’s degree in psychiatry.

“His interest in psychiatry grew out of a preference for studying the human mind rather than the human body as a medical school student,” Dr. David Sadoff said in an email. “As for his interest in forensic psychiatry, he was asked by a lawyer friend in California in the late 1960s to discuss a civil case that involved the mental state of a defendant, and he was transfixed by the connection between law and psychiatry.”

In California, Dr. Sadoff also took a course called Psychotherapy and Pipe Smoking. The takeaway: If your pipe goes out, you’re talking more than you’re listening.

He served in the Army as a courts-martial psychiatrist while earning 33 credits at Temple University’s law school (now Beasley School of Law).

He married the former Joan Handelman, who survives him. Besides his son, he is also survived by his daughters Debra J. Sadoff, Dr. Julie B. Sadoff and Sherry Hanck, and 10 grandchildren.

Dr. Sadoff was one of the original eight members of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. He joined the University of Pennsylvania medical faculty in 1972 and retired as a clinical professor and director of the Center for Studies in Socio-Legal Psychiatry last year.

Dr. Sadoff served as president and chairman of the American Friends of Magen David Adom, the Israeli Red Cross, and, with his wife, produced two documentaries on the American civil rights movement.

A man of deep Jewish faith, he traced his religious convictions to an episode that occurred when he was about 5.

As he recounted it, a fire engine was racing to an emergency when its driver missed a turn and careened into the South Minneapolis drugstore owned by Dr. Sadoff’s father. The truck smashed head-on into the prescription counter where his father usually worked.

That morning, though, his father was not at his regular post. He had taken a few hours off to perform a good deed, going to recite the traditional mourner’s prayer for a relative who had recently died.

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