Killer Court

April 14 will mark 10 years since one of the worst crimes in California history, but before that anniversary a related event of significance will take place. On February 24 in Sacramento, California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal will decide whether any case involving crime by a juvenile can ever be declared final. The decision could prompt the early release of convicted murderers, a distressing prospect for victims of crime across the state. 

On April 14, 2013, Daniel Marsh tortured, murdered, and mutilated attorney and musician Oliver “Chip” Northup, 87, and his wife Claudia Maupin, 76, in their Davis, California home. After eviscerating the couple, March placed a cell phone and drinking glass inside the body cavities, as he later said, to throw off the investigation. 

Police reports said the killings had been committed with “exceptional depravity,” and staff at the Yolo County coroner’s office had never seen mutilation on that scale. The autopsy report runs 16 pages and 6,000 words. Crime scene photos caused jurors to request counseling. 

In his lengthy, detailed confession, Marsh said the killings gave him a feeling of extreme exhilaration. The Yolo county district attorney tried Marsh as an adult. He received a prison sentence of 52 years to life but his juvenile status makes him eligible for a parole hearing in 2037. The double murderer remains an off-the-charts psychopath, but new state laws could possibly get him released early. 

Under the 2016 Proposition 57, district attorneys could no longer directly file juvenile cases in adult court, whatever the gravity of the crime. In 2018, four years after his conviction, Marsh was granted a “fitness hearing” to determine whether he should have been tried in juvenile court.

 In the run-up to the hearing, prison officials allowed Marsh to put up a TED talk (Technology, Entertainment and Design) titled “Embracing Our Humanity,” in which the convicted double murderer talked up his troubled childhood. Despite the free publicity, Yolo County Judge Samuel McAdam rejected the Prop 57 bid and the appeal court upheld the ruling. Marsh still has prospects through other channels.

 In September of 2018, against intense opposition from crime victims, then-California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1391 which repealed legislation allowing criminals under the age of 16 to be tried as adults. Marsh’s lawyers argued that the transfer hearing was tantamount to a new trial. Therefore, since his appeals of the transfer hearing stretched into 2019, Marsh was eligible for resentencing as a juvenile.

 In August of 2021, the appellate court ruled that, as two of the judges put it, there was “nothing to appeal” and his original judgment had already been reinstated. Marsh’s attorney then petitioned the California Supreme Court to review the case. The high court agreed, pending a review of another juvenile murder case. 

In 1998, Mario Salvador Padilla, 16, stabbed his mother, Gina Castillo, to death because she made him empty the trash and grounded him as punishment. Padilla’s cousin, Samuel Ramirez, 17, held the woman down as Padilla stabbed and slashed her with, as he told police, “an assortment of knives.” The teenagers also conspired to kill Padilla’s stepfather, Pedro Castillo, who was not at home when expected. 

In 1999, Mario Padilla drew a sentence of life without parole (LWOP). A decade later his sentence was vacated based on a U.S. Supreme Court case law for life without parole for minors. The sentence was then reimposed, and Padilla’s challenge was still in the courts in 2016 when voters approved Proposition 57.

 The convicted murderer is now 40 years old and 25 years after his crime, Padilla will get a hearing to assess whether he should have been tried in juvenile court nearly 25 years ago. The California Supreme Court will decide whether Daniel Marsh, now 25, deserves the same favor for a double murder he committed 10 years ago at the age of 15, and for which he was duly convicted.

 Dissenters in the 4-3 decision charged that the court “treats ‘finality’ like a switch that can be toggled on and off.” Under the majority’s approach, “no criminal judgment could ever truly be considered final, because some future collateral habeas attack might arise. Indeed, such collateral attack need not even establish the illegality of a defendant’s sentence before rendering a judgment ‘nonfinal.’” For relatives of Marsh’s victims, the court’s ruling dredged up great distress.

 Mary Northup, Oliver Northup’s daughter, told the Davis Enterprise, “It’s very difficult to be the victim in a situation and have this constant churn of a process. It’s hard enough to go through it once, but to continually remember the facts and have them publicized, it has an impact on our lives.”

 Yolo County Deputy District Attorney Amanda Zambor, who tried Marsh’s case in 2014, noted that the new legislation “does not make distinctions for the most violent juvenile offenders such as Marsh, who are true threats to public safety. Nor do they consider the effects of the new laws on the victims of crime.”

 According to Zambor, “It is not justice to continue to re-traumatize victims over and over again. At some point these cases have to be final, otherwise victims will continue to be re-victimized with each new law that passes.”

 For Sarah Rice, Claudia Maupin’s granddaughter, “It’s nonsense that a criminal of this nature should ever be allowed to walk the streets again.” California’s judicial system fails to agree. 

 On February 24, the appeal court will decide whether Marsh’s case, or any murder case involving a juvenile, is ever truly final. If not, more murderers will be allowed to walk the streets again. Whatever the decision, the number of murders in California is likely to increase. 

 Under “new law” SB 1391, signed by recurring Governor Jerry Brown, any person under the age of 16 can torture, murder, and mutilate any number of elderly victims and be tried only in juvenile court. If convicted, the murderer will serve time in a soft juvenile institution and be guaranteed release at 25, the current age of Daniel Marsh. The same would be true of anyone under 16 who, in the style of Mario Padilla, stabbed his own mother to death and conspired to murder his stepfather.

 Crime victims could be forgiven for believing that California’s judicial system is exceptionally depraved. No justice, no peace.

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

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