On September 30, 2018, California governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1391, which bars prosecution of those as young as 14 as adults, whatever the gravity of their crimes. The next day, in Yolo County juvenile court, public defender Andrea Pelochino requested that Judge Samuel McAdam advance case JD-18-332—that of Daniel Marsh—to January 1, 2019, when SB 1391 would take effect. The request was unusual in that the offender was not on trial, because Marsh, 21, had already been tried, convicted, and sentenced for torturing, murdering, and mutilating Oliver Northup, 87, and his wife Claudia Maupin, 76, in their Davis home in April 2013. Marsh drew a sentence of 52 years to life, but with a possibility of parole in his early forties.
Two years into his sentence, Marsh caught a break. In November 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, also championed by Brown, which barred prosecutors from filing juvenile cases in adult courts. California’s Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 57 could be applied retroactively, and California’s Third Court of Appeals “conditionally reversed” Marsh’s conviction pending a “transfer hearing” to determine if he was suitable for adult court. If not, he would be released when he was 25, a prospect that Northup and Maupin’s surviving families found chilling. As Northup’s daughter Mary noted, that would amount to only nine years served, for two murders.
At the Donovan Correctional Center near San Diego, Marsh began to prepare for what amounted to a new trial, with no new exculpatory evidence. The burden of proof would be on the prosecution to show that he was suitable for adult court. “I see myself as a resilient, loyal and kind-hearted individual who may not always say the right thing but always means well,” Marsh said in a TED talk put up on YouTube in May, but since removed. He showed no remorse for the murders and portrayed himself as a victim of sexual abuse. “There is no such thing as evil people in this world,” Marsh explained, “only damaged people.” In effect, this was advance testimony for his hearing, with no possibility of cross-examination.
In a surprise move, attorneys put Marsh on the stand. “I’m not who I used to be,” the convicted killer claimed. Asked if he had anything to say to the families of the victims present in the courtroom, Marsh protested that “nothing I can say will be enough.” He continued: “I’m sorry I took them away from you. I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. I can’t give you the apology you deserve. I can’t look at you.” Indeed, he didn’t look at them, and the words came out as mechanical and soulless as those uttered by the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Marsh grew more animated when grilled on details of the crime. Asked if he identified as a murderer, he said “I did,” adding, “I tried to kill more people.” Did he research psychopaths? “I wanted to be one,” he answered. Did he research serial killers? “I wanted to be one. I admired them for killing people.” His testimony recalled the first police report, which said that the murders had been committed with “exceptional depravity.”
Last week, McAdam ruled Marsh suitable for adult court, reinstated the original conviction, and sent him back to prison. The ruling represented a triumph in California judicial history: a convicted double murderer and aspiring serial killer would serve his original sentence. Victims’ families found some relief, but with SB 1391 soon to become law, what lies ahead is uncertain. As McAdam conceded in his ruling, “it will soon be the law of California that even a 15-year-old who commits a brutal double murder of strangers in his neighborhood will be adjudicated in juvenile court and not adult court, without any weighing of factors.” And that could make Daniel Marsh, an exceptionally depraved double murderer, the poster child for California’s criminal-justice system after Jerry Brown.
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