Robert L. Sadoff, forensic psychiatry pioneer

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Robert L. Sadoff, 81, of Huntingdon Valley, one of the founders of the field of forensic psychiatry and a longtime professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine who testified at many murder trials, died Monday, April 17, at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health from complications following a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

“His spirit was so unbelievably optimistic,” said Kenneth J. Weiss, a colleague who had known Dr. Sadoff for more than 35 years and was recently named to the Perelman’s inaugural Robert L. Sadoff Clinical Professorship in Forensic Psychiatry. “He treated even his last days as any other days, making plans — ‘I want to do this. I want to go there.’”

As one of the eight pioneers who created the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 1969, Dr. Sadoff helped develop the standards of teaching and training for psychiatrists who increasingly were being called on by the courts to assess the mental states of defendants.

The founders sent invitations to 100 psychiatrists across the country, asking them to join. By the time the academy’s online journal called Dr. Sadoff a “Renaissance Man of Forensic Psychiatry” in a profile in 2008, the group counted more than 2,000 members around the world.

Dr. Sadoff served as the group’s second president from 1971 to 1973.

A native of Minnesota, Dr. Sadoff joined the medical faculty at Penn in 1972, became a full professor six years later, and retired as clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Studies in Social-Legal Psychiatry in 2016.

David Sadoff, one of his four children, wrote of his father: “In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Sadoff, or ‘Bob’ to those who knew him, helped lay the foundations for the field of forensic psychiatry, which operates at the nexus of psychiatry and the law and assists courts in adjudicating such matters as a defendant’s competency to stand trial…”

At services held Thursday, April 20, David Sadoff said he was “struck by the enormity” of the impact of his father’s life and his intelligence, inquisitiveness, compassion and fairness.

In addition to his work at Penn, Dr. Sadoff maintained a private practice in Jenkintown. Over the years, he used his forensic skills to examine high-profile defendants such as John E. du Pont and Jeffrey M. MacDonald.

He also had a role in the New Jersey murder case that led to the creation of Megan’s Law, which requires the registration of convicted sex offenders, and in the sentencing of Gary M. Heidnik, who was convicted in 1988 of torturing and raping six women he held captive in the basement of his North Philadelphia home.

Dr. Sadoff testified for the prosecution that he found no evidence that Jesse K. Timmendequas was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance when he sexually assaulted and killed 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. Rather, the psychiatrist said, Timmendequas, a convicted sex offender, was aware of the “wrongfulness” of his acts and “acted in a very logical way” when he tried to cover up the crime involving the child who lived across the street from him in Hamilton, near Trenton.

At the time of sentencing for Heidnik, who sought the death penalty, Dr. Sadoff testified that Heidnik’s long history of hospitalizations for schizophrenia should not prevent his execution. Heidnik was put to death in 1999, the last person to be executed in Pennsylvania.

An heir to the DuPont Co. fortune, du Pont in 1997 was found guilty but mentally ill in the shooting death of Olympic wrestler David Schultz. Dr. Sadoff, who testified for the defense, was among eight psychiatrists who said du Pont was a paranoid schizophrenic. Du Pont died in prison in 2010.

In the MacDonald case, Dr. Sadoff examined the former Army surgeon in 1970 shortly after his pregnant wife and two daughters were found stabbed to death in their apartment at Fort Bragg, N.C. Dr. Sadoff wrote in a letter to MacDonald’s lawyer that he saw nothing in his evaluation to suggest that MacDonald was “capable of committing the type of atrocious crime to his family of which he is suspected.”

MacDonald was convicted of the crime and sent to prison but has mounted numerous appeals.

In announcing Dr. Sadoff’s death, officials at Penn’s department of psychiatry said the department had been “diminished, but we continue to celebrate his many and varied contributions.”

He was an active clinical professor for decades, and colleagues recalled that his “boundless energy and optimism and his focus on ethics permeated his teaching and touched the lives of countless peers and proteges. As a practitioner, his even-handed approach to applications of psychiatry to the law earned respect from the bench, bar, and medical community.”

Weiss said he was honored and humbled to hold the clinical professorship in forensic psychiatry that Dr. Sadoff and his wife, Joan, had endowed: “For me, to have his name in my academic title is something I never imagined, and it is wonderful to me.”

Weiss said the ceremonies celebrating the establishment of the endowed chair had been scheduled for February, but Dr. Sadoff asked for a delay so that many of his friends who spend winters in Florida could attend.

“It was for him and his people, as well as for me and my people,” Weiss said, adding that Dr. Sadoff had been planning to attend the June 20 ceremony.

Dr. Sadoff was the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including The Evolution of Forensic Psychiatry: History, Current Developments, Future Directions, published by Oxford University Press last year.

He was born in Minneapolis to Max and Rose Sadoff, who were pharmacists. The valedictorian at his high school, he attended the University of Minnesota and graduated from its medical school in 1959. He had a medical internship at a veterans’ hospital in Los Angeles and completed his residency at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute.

Dr. Sadoff had varied interests. Among other things, he was president and board chair of the American Friends of Magen David Adom, which supports the Israeli Red Cross.

He was a passionate collector of old books, especially in the fields of law, medicine and psychiatry. He donated approximately 4,000 volumes to the Library of the College of Physicians in Center City. The college created a library in his honor and named him chair of its advisory board.

In addition to his son and wife of nearly 58 years, Dr. Sadoff is survived by daughters Debra,  Julie, and Sherry Hanck, and 10 grandchildren.

Services were Thursday, April 20.

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