Obituary: Veteran public defender Farris N. Salamy, 84, represented notorious killers

02/07/2014 5:07 PM

02/18/2014 7:58 PM

Farris N. Salamy, a former Sacramento County public defender who represented some of the capital’s most notorious killers, died Feb. 2 of leukemia, his family said. He was 84.

Mr. Salamy was a local prosecutor for three years before switching sides to join the Public Defender’s Office in 1959. After 25 years as second in command, he was appointed chief public defender in 1989 to lead an office of 68 lawyers and 40 clerical workers and investigators. He personally tried at least 16 death-penalty cases over 34 years and retired in 1993.

His high-profile clients included Richard Trenton Chase, who was convicted of six slayings in the late 1970s and was known as the “Vampire Killer” because he drank the victims’ blood. Because of intense pretrial publicity about the killings, including the mutilations of two women, the trial was moved to Santa Clara County.

Mr. Salamy “didn’t want to saddle one of the younger attorneys with that case, so he took it on himself,” said his brother Phillip. “He relocated to San Jose for several months. He had to do a lot of preparation, and it took a lot out of him.”

Chase was sentenced to death in 1979 despite Mr. Salamy’s plea against execution because he believed the defendant was mentally ill and legally insane. Chase committed suicide by drug overdose in San Quentin Prison in 1980 while awaiting execution.

Mr. Salamy defended Aaron Charles Mitchell, who died in the gas chamber at San Quentin in 1967 for killing a Sacramento police officer and was the last man executed in California before a 25-year moratorium on capital punishment. He represented Robert Henry Nicolaus, one of the few people ever sentenced to death twice – first for killing his three children in 1964, then for killing his former wife in Sacramento in 1985.

Nicolaus, who was represented by Mr. Salamy on his second conviction, died of natural causes on death row.

Mr. Salamy “was a firm believer that any accused person gets a fair trial,” his brother said. “In history, that wasn’t always the case in some parts of the country, so he was very strong about that.”

The son of a Lebanese immigrant, Farris Najeeb Salamy was born Oct. 29, 1929, in Amarillo, Texas. He moved to Sacramento at 12 and worked in the family’s mom-and-pop grocery store at 20th and J streets while attending Sacramento High School and California State University, Sacramento.

He graduated from Boalt Hall Law School at UC Berkeley in 1955 and began working as a Sacramento County deputy district attorney. He served as president of the California Public Defenders Association in 1975.

Although some of his clients were reviled, Mr. Salamy was widely respected in the legal community as a low-key, meticulous lawyer with an easygoing manner.

He also endured heartbreak. Marriages to his first wife, Wynona Cobb, and second wife, Nancy Barlow, ended in divorce. He was predeceased by two sons from his first marriage, Mark and Scott.

In 1970, his fiancée Nancy Marie Bennallack was found stabbed to death in her Bell Street apartment. (The slaying is unsolved but still being investigated as a cold case, Sacramento County sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Lisa Bowman said.)

Besides his brother, Mr. Salamy is survived by two children from his first marriage, Derek and Suzie; two grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

A celebration of his life is set for 3 p.m. Monday at The Firehouse Restaurant, 1112 Second St., Sacramento. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to charity.


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