Senate Bill 1391, which bars prosecution of juveniles as adults, became law in California on January 1, 2019. An ongoing case in Yolo County demonstrates what this law might mean for the Golden State and also raises questions about the role of expert witnesses in court.
In April of 2013, 15-year-old Daniel Marsh tortured, murdered and mutilated Oliver Northup, 87, and his wife Claudia Maupin, 76, in their Davis home. A Yolo County jury found Marsh sane at the time of the crime and in 2014 the double murderer 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, which barred prosecutors from directly filing juvenile cases in adult court. California’s Supreme Court ruled that Prop. 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 at age 25, having served only nine years for two murders. Victims’ families and people in Davis found that prospect truly chilling.
In effect, the transfer hearing was a new trial with no new exculpatory evidence. The burden of proof would be on the prosecution to show that an already convicted double murderer was suitable for adult court. Marsh prepped for the hearing with a TED talk, in which he claimed to be a victim of sexual abuse. This talk, showcased on the internet in a YouTube video, served as advance testimony for his hearing, with no possibility of cross-examination.
On September 30, 2018, the day before the hearing, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1391, which barred all prosecution of juveniles as adults. Marsh’s attorneys pushed for a continuance, which Judge Samuel McAdam denied so the attorneys turned back the clock to the original jury trial.
In that 2014 proceeding, those same attorneys charged that Marsh’s doctors had been “ramping him up on Zoloft,” and that this depression medicine was somehow responsible for the crime. In the transfer hearing, the attorneys brought in psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Soulier, who opined that he would have given Marsh more Zoloft.
Soulier billed himself as a “forensic psychiatrist” but when asked if Marsh changed his tune when he got word of the transfer hearing, Soulier told the court “I’m not a human lie detector.” In criminal justice, forensic evidence bears directly on questions of truth and falsehood. It was as though an FBI lab technician had discovered DNA confirming a suspect’s claims to be false, then told the court they should disregard the evidence since it was not his job to detect lies.
It also emerged that in 2013 Marsh had threatened to kill Soulier. In the transfer hearing, Soulier said Marsh had demonstrated “significant growth,” no longer showed homicidal ideation, and would even be capable of holding a job on the outside. In testimony, Marsh both revisited his crime and told the court, “I’m not the person I used to be.” Victims’ families had good cause to wonder.
The convicted murderer had never shown remorse, and on the psychopathy scale Marsh tested 35.8 out of 40. For psychopathy expert Dr. Matthew Logan, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, anyone who tested that high posed huge risk for violence and should not be out in public.
Judge McAdam played it close to the vest but in a 17-page ruling on October 24 he found no mitigating circumstances, and the losses from the murders to be “incalculable.” McAdam found Marsh suitable for adult court, reinstated the sentence and returned the convict to prison. The judge also saw fit to issue a warning.
“It will soon be the law of California,” McAdam ruled, “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 if convicted, such criminals would serve only until age 25, in comfy juvenile facilities. That is the reality in California under Senate Bill 1391, which Jerry Brown signed despite testimony from families of crime victims.
Meanwhile, Marsh’s attorneys filed a writ to appeal McAdam’s ruling. When the appeal court denied the writ, they appealed to the state Supreme Court, even though the hearing did not restore Marsh’s appeal rights, now exhausted. Yolo County prosecutors countered that the case was final, SB 1391 was unconstitutional, and the court had not abused its authority.
At this writing, the Supreme Court has yet to respond.