Opening arguments took place Monday in the civil case against a former University of Pennsylvania professor who bludgeoned his wife to death in their suburban Philadelphia home as she wrapped Christmas presents.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Rafael Robb, 64, a former Penn economics professor currently serving a prison sentence for the crime.
Robb beat his wife, 49-year-old Ellen Gregory Robb to death with a metal chin-up bar as she was wrapping Christmas gifts back in December 2006 in their King of Prussia home — in order to avoid a costly divorce, according to prosecutors. Their daughter Olivia Robb, then 12, was also home at the time.
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Rafael Robb pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in November 2007 and was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison.
Attorneys for Ellen Robb want her estate compensated and money provided for her daughter. While Ellen Robb's brother Gary Gregory represents the estate, family attorney Robert Mongeluzzi told Philly.com that any award would go to Olivia Robb, who is now 20-years-old and estranged from her father. She lived in South Jersey with an uncle after her mother’s death before she went off to college, according to Mongeluzzi.
Mongeluzzi also said Rafael Robb had assets and investments in the millions.
During Monday's opening arguments, Mongeluzzi told the jury Rafael Robb repeatedly beat his wife with a metal bar until she was unrecognizable and then tried to stage a robbery scene in the house, according to Philly.com.
Rafael Robb's attorney Eric Levin stated the murder was not premeditated during his opening arguments, Philly.com reports. Robb had claimed he went into a violent rage after his wife pushed him and caused him to hit his head.
According to Philly.com, Mongeluzzi told the jury that while Robb would try to depict the incident as a moment of uncontrollable rage, they should focus on how much his wife suffered.
Robb was initially paroled in Nov. 2012, and the victim's family publicly protested the decision.
Gary Gregory told NBC10's Deanna Durante the family had tried over and over again to protest Robb's release in front of the parole board. Each time, he said, they were denied.
State Rep. Mike Vereb stepped in on the family's behalf and convinced the Chairman of the Parole Board, Michael Potteiger, to meet with the family. Vereb, a Republican, said after researching the case, he'd determined that the parole board likely broke the law and violated the family's rights by not allowing them to speak before the board.
Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Tressler, who oversaw the case, called Ellen's murder one of the most horrific in the history of Montgomery County. He also wrote to the parole board to protest Robb's release. His letter included information about Robb's treatment of his daughter:
"Even more telling is his [Robb's] attempt to manipulate his grieving daughter into continuing her relationship with him by threatening to withhold financial support for her future. I fear his prison conduct and your judgment. About him not being a threat to the public is another example of his manipulation, this time to the parole board."
The board denied breaking any laws and said the responsibility of notifying families about appearing before the board belongs to the Office of the Victim Advocate. However, in January 2013, the board rescinded their decision, just four days before Robb was set to walk free. He remained in prison.
Olivia Robb will testify during the civil trial, with Hon. Thomas M. Del Ricci presiding. Rafael Robb will also face cross-examination.
"The family of Ellen Gregory Robb has waited eight years to have its day in court," Mongeluzzi said.
Mongeluzzi also said Ellen Robb’s family would not be able to find any closure or justice until “the circumstances of the killing and the facts of the case have finally been presented to a jury.”
"We have never lost faith in the American justice system and while we know the trial will be terribly painful, especially for my niece, this is what our beloved Ellen would have wanted," Gary Gregory said.
Rafael Robb will remain incarcerated locally during the trial. The claims against him were brought under Pennsylvania’s wrongful death and survival acts.