On December 12, Yolo County, California, Superior Court Judge David Reed sentenced 17-year-old convicted murderer Daniel Marsh to 52 years-to-life in state prison. Judge Reed rejected Marsh’s lawyer’s contention that such a term, even with possibility of parole, would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The circumstances of the crime and Marsh’s sentencing raise questions about juvenile justice in the Golden State.
Marsh was just 15 years old on April 14, 2013, when he broke into the Davis home of 87 year-old Oliver “Chip” Northup, an attorney and popular bluegrass musician, and his 76 year-old wife, Claudia Maupin, a pastoral associate at the Davis Unitarian church where the couple met. An early report from Davis police said Marsh killed the couple “in a way that manifested exceptional depravity.” As testimony at Marsh’s lengthy trial confirmed, this was no exaggeration. Psychologist James Rokop called Marsh a sexual sadist who killed solely to gratify himself. Victoria Hurd, Claudia Maupin’s daughter, told the court that an expert had to restore her mother’s body before she could see it, “just so we could hold her hand and kiss her goodbye.” Marsh “terrorized, tortured” and was “sadistic and without remorse,” continuing to attack Claudia after she pleaded for him to stop.
In October, the jury found that Marsh was sane when he committed the murders. Before handing down the sentence last week, Judge Reed said Marsh “stabbed and tortured and was proud of what he had done.” Indeed, the charges against Marsh included enhancements for use of a deadly weapon, lying in wait, and torture. His girlfriend testified during the trial that Marsh “liked to torture” and had made two other attempts to kill. As Marsh’s own confession made clear, he had tortured both victims for his own pleasure. “It felt great,” he told police after his arrest in June 2013. “It was pure happiness.” In the end, he received an additional year in prison for use of a knife in each murder. But because Marsh is a juvenile, he got no extra prison time for lying in wait or for the torture enhancement.
That was little consolation to the victim’s loved ones, who told the court of their suffering. Mary Northup, Chip’s youngest daughter, took daily walks with her father. “My father’s murder ripped him from us,” she told the court. After the crime, Northrup testified she couldn’t pass the house without breaking down. As for Marsh, “the only thing he learned is that he should not disclose the details of his next murder.” James Northup, one of Chip’s four sons, entered the courtroom in a wheelchair but stood to deliver his statement. On April 6, 2013, he told the court, the family celebrated the birth of his granddaughter, a great-granddaughter to Chip. “We were looking forward to a beautiful spring,” James Northup said. “A week later, Daniel Marsh murdered our joy.” James Northup’s Lou Gehrig’s disease came out of remission soon afterward.
In politically correct Davis, nobody organized a march or demonstration on behalf of the victims’ families. Instead, a group of Davis High School students launched a “Free Dan Marsh” page on Facebook and school district officials offered counseling for traumatized students. Among the guidance the district offered was information on “how to look out for students who may be vulnerable to self-injury or harm as a response to receiving traumatic information.” Meantime, the People’s Vanguard of Davis, a local left-wing rag billing itself as “a community-based watchdog and news reporting organization,” portrayed Marsh as the victim of a school district that needed to spend more money on mental health. Robert Northup, Chip’s son, told me that the minister of his church said his father, stepmother, and their murderer had “equal stature as victims and were all equally worthy of our empathy.”
As it stands now, Marsh will be eligible for parole in 25 years, when he’ll be in his early forties. Judge Reed said Marsh’s prospects for reform “should be treated with caution.” His crimes were neither spontaneous nor haphazard. He planned his killings carefully. What’s more, Marsh understood the limits of current mental health laws in stopping him from “causing harm to himself or others.” In particular, Marsh knew that if he never discussed a specific victim or plan, his therapists were under no obligation to report him to law enforcement. When an adult with a propensity to do harm makes such statements, however, he waives confidentiality. At the very least, that rule should prevail in juvenile cases as well. “My parents might still be alive,” said Victoria Hurd.
Marsh’s trial should also prompt a fresh look at the state’s sentencing guidelines for juveniles. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for minors violate the Eighth Amendment. Under California law, juveniles have long been ineligible for the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole. But it makes little sense to bar sentence enhancements for torture or lying in wait just because the offender is a juvenile.
Even modest reforms to California’s juvenile sentencing guidelines and mental health laws no doubt would be a tough slog through a legislature dominated by liberal Democrats. But such reforms might help stop the next Daniel Marsh from indulging his “exceptional depravity.”