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Retired U.S. District Judge John P. Fullam, 96, noted for Abscam, Penn Central cases

John P. Fullam, 96, a Bucks County farm boy who went on to Harvard Law School and became a federal judge whose gutsy decision reversed the convictions of two defendants in the Abscam political-corruption trial in Philadelphia, died Thursday, March 8.

Former U.S. District Judge John P. Fullam during a campaign for U.S. Congress in 1956.
Former U.S. District Judge John P. Fullam during a campaign for U.S. Congress in 1956.Read moreCourtesy of family

John Patrick Fullam, 96, a Bucks County farm boy who went to Harvard Law School and became a federal judge whose gutsy decision reversed the convictions of two defendants in the Abscam political-corruption trial in Philadelphia, died Thursday, March 8.

Judge Fullam, who while serving on U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania also presided over the landmark bankruptcy of the Penn Central Transportation Co., died at Plush Mills Senior Living in Wallingford, according to the oldest of his four children, Nancy Fullam.

In 1980, Judge Fullam dismissed the verdict of a jury that had found Philadelphia City Council President George X. Schwartz and Councilman Harry Jannotti guilty of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes, saying there was no evidence the men had done anything "improper" and declaring that the government had illegally entrapped them. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit later reinstated the convictions.

"It took courage on his part to stand up against the jury's verdict," Philadelphia defense attorney Richard Sprague, who had represented Schwartz, said Friday. "He was very principled. He felt strongly that the government had created this crime, and they seduced George Schwartz in participating."

"Judge Fullam was, in my opinion, the perfect example of what a federal judge should be," said Sprague. "He was brilliant. He really handled a courtroom marvelously. … It was just fun trying cases in front of him, because he could anticipate where the lawyers were going, and it made for a challenging chess match."

Peter Vaira, the former U.S. attorney who supervised the prosecutions of Schwartz and Jannotti, also called Judge Fullam's decision "courageous" and "based on good faith."

"It wasn't the fact that he wanted to see criminals go," Vaira said. "He didn't want the government to be able to go out and entice people to commit crimes. … I think he was wrong, but he certainly believed that [there was entrapment] and there was evidence that could indicate that."

Attorney Paul R. Rosen, who represented Howard Criden, a Philadelphia lawyer who was convicted in a separate federal Abscam trial in Brooklyn, N.Y., said "Judge Fullam was the only judge who believed that justice wasn't done by the government and that they were overreaching."

The Abscam investigation, an undercover operation that began in 1978, involved FBI agents who posed as fictitious Arab sheikhs or their representatives seeking favors from public officials.

William K. Marimow, vice president of strategic development for the Inquirer and Daily News' parent company and former editor of the Inquirer, who covered Abscam for the paper, said the judge's decision to overturn the convictions "was a prime example of the strength of his beliefs and his willingness to take a principled stand despite irrefutable videotaped evidence showing the defendants accepting cash payments."

Born in 1921, Judge Fullam graduated first in his class from Villanova University in 1942, his daughter said. He then served in the Navy during World War II as a lieutenant on the USS Guadalupe.

Returning to the States, Judge Fullam attended Harvard Law School. In 1946, he met his future wife, Alice Freiheit, at a tea at Radcliffe College, which she was attending. He graduated from Harvard in 1948.

Upon graduation, Judge Fullam had a general law practice in Bristol, Bucks County. He ran twice for Congress in the 1950s as a Democrat, but lost.

From 1960 to 1966, he served as a Bucks County Court judge. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated him to the federal bench in Philadelphia. He retired as a U.S. district judge in 2011, at age 89.

Judge Fullam considered the highlight of his career the 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central, a company that had been created from the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads. "Not only was it the largest bankruptcy in history, it went on for quite a long time . . . and involved a lot of money," he told the Inquirer in 2011.

The Fullams were married in 1950, and they later lived in Wrightstown Township, Bucks County, with their children. The couple moved to Plush Mills in 2007. Alice Fullam, a retired librarian, died in 2016.

Nancy Fullam, who worked as a civil trial attorney in Philadelphia, said she, her sister, Sally, and brothers Thomas "T.J." and Jeffrey "have many fond memories of our father doing everything from milking goats to beating Chief Justice [William] Rehnquist on the tennis court."

Judge Fullam also is survived by four grandchildren.

Burial will be private. A memorial service will be held at Wrightstown Friends Meeting at a date to be determined.