Davis murders were horrific – and court case raises disturbing issues

Daniel Marsh reacts as a guilty verdict is read in September in the murders of an elderly Davis couple.
Daniel Marsh reacts as a guilty verdict is read in September in the murders of an elderly Davis couple. The Davis Enterprise

In late September, a Yolo County jury found Daniel Marsh guilty of torturing and murdering Oliver “Chip” Northup, 87, and Claudia Maupin, 76, in their Davis home. The jury also found that Marsh, 15 at the time, was sane when he committed the murders. His sentencing hearing is set for Dec. 12.

Whatever his punishment, the case continues to raise disturbing issues. Legal scholars and legislators should take a hard look at the rules for how mental health counselors report threats. The insanity defense and the use of expert witnesses could also stand some examination, as should the idea that juveniles duly tried and convicted as adults should also be subject to adult penalties.

This is all in the hope that some meaningful reform could emerge from one of the worst violent crimes in California history, and that lives could be saved.

The jury heard material from five Marsh confessions, including a five-hour session with police when Marsh said that he “stabbed the hell out of those people” and that it “felt amazing.” The physical evidence confirmed everything in the confession. Friends testified that Marsh liked to torture, and researched serial killers such as Ted Bundy.

The April 2013 murders were not part of a robbery or drug deal, and there had been no quarrel between Marsh and his victims. As forensic psychologist Deborah Schmidt testified, it was a clear case of “predatory aggression.” Psychologist James Rokop testified that Marsh was a “sexual sadist.”

If torture, murder and mutilation are not a case of violence against women, it’s hard to imagine what might be. Yet, a horrific crime against an innocent and defenseless woman triggered not a single demonstration during the entire trial. In at least one Davis church, the victims and the victimizer were portrayed as equally deserving of sympathy.

Despite the revelations in the trial, Marsh’s insanity defense gained traction. “Where did the system fail Daniel Marsh?” asked a Sept. 18 editorial in the People’s Vanguard of Davis, arguing that the Davis School District needed more funding for mental health services.

The trial, however, challenged that contention. Witnesses included two mental health counselors, a school psychologist, a school safety official and a sympathetic special education teacher, among others. Beyond the school system, Marsh was attended by social workers, therapists and psychiatrists. So it’s hard to see how he lacked support in the school and health care systems.

On the judicial side, the system paid for his public defender and $25,000 for the defense’s expert witness, James Merikangas. He testified that at the time of the crime, Marsh was in a dreamlike dissociative state due to brain damage and medication side effects. The jury rejected that argument, but the system clearly gave Marsh the best defense other people’s money could buy.

As a juvenile, Marsh is not eligible for the death penalty, or life without parole. So it’s hard to see how he is a victim in any sense. On the other hand, court testimony made it clear that he exploited the system.

He told counselors how he wanted to kill and torture people, knowing that, without revealing a specific victim or plan, counselors could not break confidentiality. He carefully researched the insanity defense and told friends that, if he ever got caught, that is the strategy he would use.

The lengthy trial, with its gruesome testimony, took a heavy toll on relatives of the victims. Incredibly enough, some found themselves bullied on local websites. One was told she needed to get over losing her mother. Clearly, whatever the sentence in this murder case, it’s not only the legal system that needs reform.

Lloyd Billingsley writes for City Journal California and other publications and is the author of “Exceptional Depravity: Dan Who Likes Dark and Double Murder in Davis, California.”

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