Eye on the Courts: Preventable Tragedy in Marsh?

Back in June of 2013, I would write in a commentary following the arrest of Daniel Marsh: “If this young man indeed ends up being the killer, this is a failure of our system.  This time it is our failure, our system, our schools that perhaps did not read the warning signs in the right way and find help for a kid who may have been ready to snap.”

“We have a culture of bullying and depression, and we still do not do enough to help those troubled kids when there is still a chance,” I wrote at the time. “We are still, in many ways, a community in deep denial about a group of our young people who do not make it through the system unscathed.  So yes, we did not want this to be one of our own, but now that we realize it might well be, we need to wake up and start dealing with real problems.”

What I would say now is that we really did not know the extent of the systemic failure until the previous week or so of trial testimony.

A comment by Dr. Steve Nowicki, who specializes in pediatric developmental behavior, illustrates the problem here. When an individual commits a heinous and unspeakable crime – as Mr. Marsh undoubtedly has – we do not as a society want to shift blame away from the individual.

That Mr. Marsh was just 15 at the time of the crime, that the school system and mental health system had ample warning, should give us pause. It is easy to write Mr. Marsh off as a monster and end our analysis there. It is much harder to look within ourselves for the signs and try to figure out how this can be prevented in the future.

Dr. Nowicki writes, “Reading this testimony has me furious. This is one case in which there are three victims. This testimony illustrates the need for our community to take pediatric mental health, childhood trauma and child development extremely seriously.”

“The Black Box Warning is most important in the first weeks of starting any SSRI as it can cause ‘activation’ which may appear as irritability, increased energy and even the energy to attempt a suicide already contemplated as a result of major depression. It is clear that depression is the root of suicide and SSRI’s are quite effective in treating depression. The irritability can persist and that prompts a change in medication, a reevaluation of the diagnosis and intensification of therapy.”

“The real issue is the lack of coordination and the obvious lack of patient ownership that should be the cornerstone of a good physician,” he continues. “It is unrealistic to think that we should rely on a school psychologist in this situation and there should have been more immediate response by his psychiatrist.”

The doctor writes, “As a physician specializing in developmental and behavioral pediatrics who works with many challenging children in our region, I often run mental simulations in my head of ‘what would I have done?’ ”

He states, “With his history of early childhood trauma (as reported in Vanguard), he should have been involved in early counseling to address the impact of the trauma to facilitate healing. During this time, [there should have been] a full assessment of his behavioral symptoms and potentially educational or neuropsychological testing to help inform his social-emotional skills and his learning-coping styles.”

The doctor continues, “During the immediate crisis that was described by the school counselor and the brief information outlined by his psychiatrist, it would have been prudent to have been monitoring his symptoms and response to therapy every 1-2 weeks by the psychiatrist to build both, provide psychotherapy and to adjust medications. With the activation observed with Zoloft and the disorganized thinking with hallucinations, I would have changed his SSRI and added a mood stabilizer. The main target would have been the depression. His most likely diagnosis would have been Severe Major Depression with psychotic features. The first step is to reduce the psychotic symptoms (mood stabilizer) and aggressively treat the depression with an SSRI and in his case TB-CBT. The key is really to have very close follow up and be very responsive to his symptoms. He may have required a couple of coordinated hospitalizations for safety until stabilized.”

He concludes, “Daniel Marsh is the type of kid that needed the most help and did not receive it. Now it is clear that we lost 3 people in this tragedy that should have been avoided.”

As a layman, I find myself increasingly troubled with aspects of this case.  It appears that none of what the doctor above describes as needed to have happened actually occurred. The system failed Daniel Marsh and, by failing Daniel Marsh, it failed Oliver Northup and Claudia Maupin.  And by failing the elderly couple, it failed us all.

We have the prosecutor’s psychiatrist who would testify that Daniel Marsh never expressed any homicidal thoughts or ideations to Dr. Joseph Sison, who evaluated Daniel while the defendant was in the facility.

Instead, Dr. Sison, in his lengthy testimony, would repeatedly blame the habitual use of marijuana as a possible cause of agitation and aggression in Marsh.

This doctor indicated that Mr. Marsh talked about suicidal thoughts, but not psychotic thoughts. His diagnosis at the time was severe depression with suicidal thoughts.

The strange sequence, however, was the doctor’s repeated assertion, “I have never liked marijuana being legal, I do not understand why it is legal, it should be illegal.”

It defies credibility when the prosecution puts a purported medical professional on the stand who insists that the habitual use of marijuana is a possible cause of Mr. Marsh’s agitation and aggression.

It sounded like something out of the propaganda flick, “Reefer Madness,” rather than actual medical testimony.

The testimony of the school counselor was troubling, as well – daily suicidal thoughts. Mr. Marsh would tell her of his suicidal thoughts, but he also told her about his homicidal thoughts regarding people at school, telling her he had been bullied and other students were egotistical. He had thoughts of torturing people, standing over them and telling them they are garbage until they believed it.

But the school counselor viewed her role in a very limited manner. insisting that her only duties were to treat what affects the student’s education: truancy, difficulty with work production and coping skills. She was hired strictly to perform this function.

At the same time, she did report this to the school therapist and the police. But no one was able to produce enough to put Mr. Marsh on a 5150 hold (an involuntary psychiatric hold pursuant to the California Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150).

Mr. Marsh would see Dr. Cheyenne He in January 2013. Dr. He prescribed more medication at this point and, per Marsh, his mood and anxiety were noted as improved, but he was still depressed, and somehow anxious about his friends. As on the initial visit, he answered, “No,” to Dr. He’s questions about having homicidal/suicidal feelings or tendencies. The doctor’s summary was that he “tolerates” the medication.

In retrospect it is clear that Daniel Marsh was in real crisis, and many different mental health personnel had the opportunity to intervene in the situation, but apparently failed to recognize the extent of Mr. Marsh’s danger to himself and others in the community. I do not have enough medical knowledge to know if the medical system failed him or if Mr. Marsh was simply such an unusual case that they were justified in failing to see the warning signs.

Most recently, we get to the testimony of Dr. James Rokop, who was apparently the court-appointed clinical psychologist.

The doctor apparently became suspicious, stating in testimony that some of the stories “were suspect, I felt Daniel may have over-played things.” He added, “I was suspicious of some of his answers; it was as if Daniel knew what to say about his medications…left me suspicious.”

Dr. Rokop said Daniel’s time frame of events about killing animals did not match and he felt that Daniel’s answers during the interview “showed validity of inconsistencies, he never reported to police any hallucinations until after the interrogation, and the time frames for his symptoms from medications did not match.”

Dr. Rokop stated, “There is a whole list of statements of rare symptoms – how much do you believe?”

From his final diagnosis of Daniel, he stated that Daniel suffers from major depressive disorder, sexual sadism, anti-social disorder, conduct disorder and substance abuse.

He said, “There are just too many questions about what he was using that night but he did say he had no sleep in days before the crime.”

In conclusion, Dr. Rokop did note that Daniel did display symptoms of cognitive slippage, a dissociative disorder, but it needed further investigation as he disagreed with some of the research and other experts’ reports in this case. He said further testing could be done to find out more.

There are separate questions here that must be analyzed. The first is the legal question – whether Daniel Marsh fits the definition of legally insane, not knowing the difference between right and wrong at the time of the crime.

The second, in my view, is more critical, whether, as Dr. Rokop thinks, Mr. Marsh was trying to play up the insanity plea. Clearly, this was a troubled kid and, despite having many contacts with mental health officials, no one recognized the true danger that he represented to himself or the community.

That is a systemic failure. This was a kid who was having suicidal thoughts, with substance abuse, at a very young age and no one had the ability to follow through and get him the help that he needed.

We should all be very troubled by this, no matter what we think a then 15-year old Daniel Marsh’s ultimate responsibility in all of this is.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. dlemongello

    In particular I found Dr. He’s testimony appalling and Dr. Nowicki really summed up my feelings after that in a more informed way than I could have expressed them. To treat the black box and side effect warnings as if to be ignored as not real, and the non-answers she gave to the defense attorney, were inadequate, to say the least. But others as well failed to respond to the gravity and dangers of Marsh’s mental and emotional condition. I agree, there are 3 victims, though Daniel’s of course is of a different nature.
    As for not having timeframes line up in the questioning by the court psychiatric evaluator, I think one can easily forget what happened when, especially when on several drugs and drinking and smoking pot regularly. Is a person only considered insane if they supposedly don’t know what they are doing is wrong, what if they just can’t stop themselves from doing it?

  2. kristineg

    Agreed David, and what compounds this systemic failure is the testimony of Daniel’s friends. His friends all saw classic warning signs of a dangerously mentally ill person – torturing animals, violent fantasies – and didn’t or couldn’t go to an adult who could take action. A kid’s peers are always going to know more about what is going on than the adults, but it seems like not only did the kids not understand that some behaviors are so serious that they must be escalated right away, the adults they managed to tell didn’t understand either.

    1. Robert Canning

      I’m not sure from what has been written in both the Vanguard and the Enterprise this last week what his friends thought. They haven’t been called to be witnesses and there has been very little written about them other than short references in the articles. The notion that kid’s peers “should” have gone to adults presumes that 1) they understand that these behaviors (whether fantasized or not) are “signs of a dangerously mentally ill person”; and 2) he actually shared much of these things with them. Also, when kids are smoking pot or drinking together a lot of stuff gets said (we’ve all been teenagers, right?). Fifteen year olds have very little experience with predicting who will commit a violent act and are probably not very good at it. But come to think of it, neither are adults.

      The notion that he was a “dangerously mentally ill person” prompts me to remind readers that 1) the vast majority of mentally ill persons do not commit violent acts; 2) it is true that seriously mentally ill people are somewhat more likely to commit violent acts than those without a mental illness; but 3) the causes of interpersonal violence in our society are many and mental illness plays a very small part in that violence.

      1. kristineg

        RC, here’s the article where I read about his peers:

        From what they said as witnesses, Marsh said enough to scare them and make them want to distance themselves from him even before he committed murder. The saddest part is that at least one of these kids did confide in an adult and the adult didn’t believe him.

        I’m no expert on mental illness but I do believe that there are some undeniable warning signs that a person is going to be violent (ie: hurting animals) that kids could be trained to escalate for the sake of everyone’s safety, along the model of the campaign against drunk driving. They are trained to do lockdown drills from kindergarten on; why not give them tools to prevent (as opposed to just react to) violence?

  3. Tia Will


    “Is a person only considered insane if they supposedly don’t know what they are doing is wrong, what if they just can’t stop themselves from doing it?”

    I think that this is a really critical point that you are making. I believe that our legal definition of insanity is hopelessly outdated and stems back to a time when mental illness was even less unclearly understood than it is today. The concept that knowing “right from wrong” means that you will be able to act accordingly is extremely simplistic and does not reflect current knowledge about neurotransmitter dysfunction, electrical impulse activity in “normal” and “abnormal” brains, differential impulse control even before one gets to how each of these may be affected by drugs ( both legal and illegal).

    Using the same line of reasoning would lead us to conclude incorrectly that if a person could tell the difference between mental health and depression, they could simply choose not to be depressed. We know unequivocally that this is not true for depression, and yet we continue to use it as our legal standard of “insanity”.

  4. DavisBurns

    These murders were clearly premeditated but the victims were random. He didn’t know them and had no motivation to harm those individuals. The criteria for insanity is not knowing it was wrong when committing the act. I think that’s going to be difficult to establish. I wonder if Adam Lansa would have been found not guilty by reason of insanity. His actions were also premeditated. Despite the legal requirements, how sane can a 15 year old be when he commits such acts? What is his current state of mind? I know he will not go free but does he still feel homicidal? If he is in a mental hospital will he be a danger to others?

    1. South of Davis

      DB wrote:

      > These murders were clearly premeditated but the victims were random.
      > He didn’t know them and had no motivation to harm those individuals.

      He lived just a few feet away from the victims so he “sort of” knew them. If you talk to any cop most crimes are committed against people that are known or at least “sort of” known.

      Just like when I was a kid and knew of other kids that stole something from neighbors garages the kids almost always “sort of” knew that old people lived there (I never heard of anyone breaking in to the garage of a Nam Vet who was an active NRA member)…

      1. DavisBurns

        His FATHER lived two houses from them. He lived with his mother. Don’t know how much time he spent at his fathers house however he said he tried 40 or 50 houses before he found one with an open window so apparently he didn’t leave from his fathers house. I believe he went from his mothers house and returned there and stashed the bloody gloves and jacket in her garage because ‘he didn’t believe the police would ever suspect a 15 year old kid of those minders.

    2. tj

      In answer to DavisBurns, no, he won’t be a danger to others as long as he receives good psychiatric care.

      He’s also fairly bright so as time goes by, he should be able to learn more and more about his illnesses and their symptoms and be better able to articulate his symptoms.

  5. Elizabeth Bowler

    “Is a person only considered insane if they supposedly don’t know what they are doing is wrong, what if they just can’t stop themselves from doing it?”

    What you are referring to is an “irresistible impulse” defense. While this does not meet the requirement for an insanity defense, it can be used in a “diminished capacity” defense. California used to allow a diminished capacity defense until the 1979 case of California v Dan White and the so called “twinkie defense”. White’s attorneys argued diminished capacity, stating that his junk food diet had created a chemical imbalance in his brain resulting in depression over his loss of his city supervisor position and that therefore, he was unable to premeditate murder, one of the requirements for first-degree murder. The jury convicted White of voluntary manslaughter — the least serious charge for homicide. This caused an uproar against the diminished capacity plea in California, and in 1982, voters overwhelmingly approved a proposition to eliminate the defense.

    1. Robert Canning

      It’s also worth stating that legal insanity can be very different from serious mental illness. Having a diagnosis is necessary to this defense but not sufficient.

  6. Tia Will


    Thanks for the clarification of “insanity” and “diminished capacity”. This is a classic example of how outrage over a single case can have unintended consequences that may eliminate what may have been a very legitimate consideration in some circumstances by citizens who may have a very limited grasp of the complexities involved in the choice they are making.

    I have hope that in the future as brain imaging studies become more refined, we may have ways to demonstrate rather than guessing at the mental status of individuals. Until then, we are always going to be trying to weigh the credibility of the fleeting impressions of mental health care providers about whether a certain choice of words, a way of pausing or reframing a thought are being “manipulated” by the accused or whether they are merely idiosyncratic gestures or habitual forms of speech and more importantly guessing about the frame of mind at the time of actual commission of the crime which is what we are doing now.

    1. Elizabeth Bowler

      I agree that it is regrettable that there is no longer a diminished capacity option in this state. The all-or-nothing insanity defense is an extremely difficult standard to meet which is why it is rarely successful in California. With diminished capacity, there were more shades of grey that could be taken into account by the jury. The Marsh case would seem to be an excellent case for a diminished capacity defense.

  7. DurantFan

    ….”That Mr. Marsh was just 15 at the time of the crime, ” (DG/Vanguard, above)”…is the MAIN reason Mr Marsh should have been tried as a juvenile. That he is being tried as an adult is a “PREVENTABLE TRAGEDY”, and surely will be the basis for a mistrial if he is found guilty.

    1. dlemongello

      I agree, 15 is not even close to the adult cut-off, and there is a reason we have the adult cut-off. It is already plain to see that there was no motive of any kind of personal greed such as material gain or a personal vendetta against these particular people. He was driven by (and it seems overwhelmed by) the anger that accompanies severe depression.

        1. Davis Progressive

          there’s another option – the prosecutor could acknowledge that the kid is messed up and allow him to enter the conrep program. then he would be under supervision until no longer a danger to society and monitored after that point.

          1. TrueBlueDevil

            When he is “better”, why don’t we have him contribute to society by fighting fires or cleaning freeways?

    2. tj

      We know from brain scans that the brain isn’t fully developed until the age of about 26 years old.
      The last part to mature is the decision making, executive function areas.
      With stress and lack of nutrition, Marsh’s brain would have been less developed than the average.

      1. Tia Will


        In addition, adolescents who have depression demonstrate maturational delays. This would certainly apply to Mr. Marsh who it seems everyone who was involved in his assessments agrees was appropriately diagnosed with depression. This to me is yet another arguments for his treatment as a juvenile.

    3. DavisBurns

      I completely agree. Fifteen is too young to be tried as an adult. I’m just saying the justice system no longer allows older juveniles to be tried as juveniles when the crime is a violent crime like this. A persons 18th birthday seems arbitrary to me but extending adulthood back three years seems like it undermines the whole concept of being a juvenile. This is what we get from the get tough on crime mania from the Reagan80’s. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world and private prisons are making money off prisons for profit.

  8. tj

    It appears Marsh knew his actions were illegal, but that he believed his actions were moral.
    He talked about there being too many people in the world. And he believed some people were bad people because they felt “superior” to others.
    Very easy for an insecure 15 year old to mistake self-confidence for superiority. And any teasing or joking as bullying, in addition to any actual bullying.
    He apparently didn’t really know the victims, but he likely had a sense from their neighborhood, and perhaps seeing them come or go, that they were happy, social, comfortable people, and he could easily mistake that as “superiority”.
    If a defendant believes his actions are righteous, I wonder how that works in the justice system?

  9. TrueBlueDevil

    I find two items here disturbing.

    First, the input from this doctor that there were a certain group of drugs used, but his suggestion that there were a different set of drugs that should have been used. These prescribed drugs being added on top of street drugs, a bad divorce, teenager insecurities, porno, violent online games, booze, and more. I wonder if a wilderness program, reducing or eliminating all of the drugs, and a social media detox would have been more effective.

    Second, the poo-pooing of the effects of marijuana on the developing teenage brain. I have been personally involved the past few years with trying to help a teenager not “go off the rails”. I have sat with a parent and the PhD counselor who has warned us of the risks associated with teenagers using marijuana. These increased risks include schizophrenia, changing the structure of the brain and other various effects.

    I believe I was told that the brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25, and the last areas of the brain to develop concern higher level thinking / reasoning. And marijuana affects this development.

    Even with my former beliefs I gave casual pot use a pass, until the recent Harvard Medical School and Northwestern Medicine study which shows that even casual marijuana use affects the developing teenage brain in three different areas!

    Casual Marijuana Use Linked to Brain Abnormalities

    David Greenwald wrote: “It defies credibility when the prosecution puts a purported medical professional on the stand who insists that the habitual use of marijuana is a possible cause of Mr. Marsh’s agitation and aggression.”

    I didn’t see him say that, but I am open to being corrected.

    I did read between the lines, and figured the doctor has read the same cliff notes medical studies I’ve read. I figured he also has probably significant practical experience with the negative consequences of pot use. I also figured he referred to the multiple issues Daniel Marsh was dealing with, and adding the habitual use of THC on top of alcohol and prescribed drugs isn’t a recipe for success. I’ve personally witnessed family members who habitually used THC and booze delay their maturation process and coping skills for years upon years. When we had an intervention these individuals finally came out of their shell, started dealing with life, and started communicating.

    Whitewashing the clinical data of schizophrenia and retarded brain development with a Cheech and Chong reference does no one any good.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “Second, the poo-pooing of the effects of marijuana on the developing teenage brain. I have been personally involved the past few years with trying to help a teenager not “go off the rails”. I have sat with a parent and the PhD counselor who has warned us of the risks associated with teenagers using marijuana. These increased risks include schizophrenia, changing the structure of the brain and other various effects.”

      i think the poo-pooing happens with the causal linkage between marijuana and this conduct, not that marijuana only young brains is less than ideal.

      1. Elizabeth Bowler

        If you accept that the behavior was in part the result of the underlying psychiatric disorder, then the marijuana use becomes an extremely significant aggravating factor. There is a significant and growing body of medical literature detailing the untoward effects of marijuana on children and those with mental disorders even to the point of precipitating psychosis.

        1. TrueBlueDevil

          Up until a few years ago I read little on this topic. Then three years ago I heard a guy on the radio talking about a German study which detailed some negative consequences per marijuana use and teenagers, and that their IQ can be decreased by up to ten percent with regular use. Now with these new studies, common sense might dictate that we will have more follow-up studies. Better late than never, with the pro-marijuana push.

          There appears to be a lot of pro marijuana myths in circulation, like “I drive better when stoned”. But a February study showed that marijuana fatalities from driving have tripled. “Drugged driving” is on the increase, with pot being the number one culprit.

          ““If a driver is under the influence of alcohol, their risk of a fatal crash is 13 times higher than the risk of the driver who is not under the influence of alcohol,” Li said. “But if the driver is under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana, their risk increased to 24 times that of a sober person.”


    2. DavisBurns

      The three factors that can predict violent behavior are childhood trauma, exposure to violence and substance abuse. I think he had all three. While I don’t think a happier better adjusted kid will suffer from occasional pot use, Daniel wasn’t using only pot. We don’t know how much alcohol he was using but I suspect it was significant. But the immersion in violent video games and gore movies may have been as much a contributor as drugs and alcohol..

  10. Tia Will

    Perhaps I missed something in the testimony to date. Has there been evidence provided that confirms that Mr. Marsh was using marijuana in close temporal proximity to the attacks. The reason I ask is not because I do not take the potential harms associated with marijuana seriously, but rather because unless he was positive for recent use, it would be difficult to make a case for precipitation of a psychotic episode as a contribution.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      I have not read about proximity of THC vis-a-vis the murders. I have read that he was a habitual (daily) user, and I read one doctor’s testimony that he tested positive for marijuana after one episode. I have read and learned that marijuana effects the “executive functions” / decision making, and I’d say the decision to kill a harmless senior couple, which could result in your spending the rest of your life in a cell with Bubba, an extremely poor decision.

  11. DavisBurns

    As the parent of an adult child with serious executive functioning problems, I have to tell you nothing in my experience or reading about executive functioning makes me think his decision to find someone to murder was in any way due to an executive functioning deficit. Executive functioning deficits would have resulted in him forgetting to bring the knife, not leaving the house until the sun came up and then, instead of people being in bed, they’d be up going to play music with the Crawdads. It would have more likely resulted in him getting lost or forgetting to put duct tape on his shoes or getting distracted and doing something else entirely.

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