Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — Melissa Kupferberg was a highly skilled advocate for society's throw-aways. At 32, the investigator for the federal Public Defender's Office was amassing a national reputation as a mentally ill defendant's best friend.
Ms. Kupferberg, who died in a gun-cleaning accident Nov. 7, worked as a mitigation specialist for the Middle District of Florida, specializing in mentally ill defendants. Guilty or innocent, she got them to open up about their pasts, including painful details that might sway a judge to lighten their sentences.
She got results, most recently as an investigator in the case of a University of South Florida student facing federal explosives charges. Youssef Megahed was acquitted in April.
In another recent case, Ms. Kupferberg helped reduce a man's child-pornography sentence from 17 to five years.
Her biggest weapons were her expertise in mental health issues and a nonjudgmental attitude.
"She was able to find the good in people who are eviscerated in the community, who basically have social death because of the five minutes of crazy that caused them to do awful things," said Linda Mroz, a veteran investigator for the federal public defender in Boise, Idaho.
Mroz met Ms. Kupferberg, whom she called "one of the best mitigation specialists I've ever met in my career," at a 2004 conference when both were training other investigators.
Back then, Ms. Kupferberg was living in Arizona and had strawberry blond hair to her hips.
The two struck up a friendship. Mroz, 49, learned that Ms. Kupferberg loved 1980s heavy metal and rock 'n' roll bands like Def Leppard and Whitesnake. She attended concerts whenever she could, and screamed and sang.
Several colleagues in Tampa and across the country describe Ms. Kupferberg as an excellent listener and good friend. "You could talk to her about anything and know … she got it and understood and she cared, and … that it was between the two of you," Mroz said.
Colleagues at the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office in Arizona relied on Ms. Kupferberg, who had a master's degree in psychology from Arizona State University, for help.
"She could talk to my people — my very, very retarded and very mentally ill people," said Donna Elm, the federal defender for Florida's Middle District who also worked with Ms. Kupferberg in Maricopa County. "She could get through to them and help them calm down."
She touched them with small favors. A cherry Coke from the commissary. A get-well card to a defendant's sick mom. A call to his pregnant girlfriend, asking if there is anything she can pick up at the store.
The accused began talking about past abuse, a big step for those who fear government in any form. She got their parents to talk, too, sometimes to admit their failures. She combed through family photos and school records, looking for documented signs of neglect.
Once, Elm said, Ms. Kupferberg suggested the defense introduce a foul-smelling piece of carpet as evidence — so the judge could smell the environment where a defendant grew up.
"She was so good at getting people to really understand what makes this person tick," Elm said, "or come to the realization that maybe a horrible past has brought that person there. It doesn't mean you shouldn't be punished. She had an approach to life so full of the human condition. People make mistakes, are messes, and do bad things as well as good."
Ms. Kupferberg left Maricopa County, where she had worked on capital or death-penalty cases, for private practice in Arizona. She joined the federal Public Defender's Office in Tampa four years ago, and quickly brightened the mood with her attitude.
At home, she indulged a pet boa constrictor with a wall-sized terrarium.
On Nov. 7, Ms. Kupferberg and her father, Stephen Kupferberg, who was visiting from Maryland, went to a shooting range together. Her gun accidentally discharged while her father was cleaning it for her.
An e-mail soon went out to members of the National Defender Investigator Association, with the subject line, "Sad news about Melissa Kupferberg."
"I read it and it took my breath away," Mroz said. "'What? What? What?' "
Calls poured in from all over the country. Many legal figures, including a federal judge, attended her funeral Thursday at Gonzalez Funeral Home.
Friends and relatives struggle with opposing realities — their sadness and their certainty that Ms. Kupferberg would not want them to remain grief-stricken.
Asked how the Kupferbergs are faring, Elm said, "It's got to be very hard. I think they have made a very concerted effort that she be very proud of them."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]