When Lloyd Billingsley wrote an op-ed back in late September following the trial of Daniel Marsh, it was stunning to read such an overly-sensational column that likened Daniel Marsh to a “superpredator” and suggested a “Maupin’s Law” to prevent such convicted juveniles from being eligible for parole.
So when this week Mr. Billingsley published a column in the Sacramento Bee and had a promotional article in the Davis Enterprise, it seemed like a good idea to watch his talk in promotion of his book.
Perhaps one of the more interesting disconnects is between the sensational title of his book – “Exceptional Depravity” in bold red letters in a font that mimics handwriting, with the almost childish subtitle that seems to mock the perpetrator, “Dan Who Likes Dark and Double Murder in Davis, California” – and his claimed reason for writing it.
He began his talk as describing the victims and the age of the victims, who were in his parents’ generation. He described Mr. Northup, a noted attorney, in heroic terms, both as a person and as an attorney. He told the group, “This is someone’s great-grandfather, someone’s grandfather, someone’s father.” He then described how painful the natural death of his own father was in his life.
But if that is the purpose of the book, it clearly loses its focus as Mr. Billingsley in his talk described the killing in graphic terms, each time punctuating his very dramatic talk with a rejoinder, “I didn’t make this up people,” to which I kept thinking, perhaps, but you can certainly cherry-pick it and distort it.
Mr. Billingsley’s style is enthralling. I listened riveted as he spoke, describing the case in ways that make the term “sensational” actually far too mild.
The book title, “Exceptional Depravity,” is taken from the original charging document that alleged the murders “were committed in a way that manifested exceptional depravity.”
Throughout his talk, he played up the prosecution’s case against the stated defense. He mocked, if not slandered, the defense experts – in particular Dr. Merikangas, a world-renowned psychiatrist and neurologist from Bethesda, Maryland.
“The big gun is this defense witness, this James Merikangas,” Mr. Billingsley began. “Probably the most high profile expert witness in the country.”
“This guy is $1000 per hour,” he says. “They pay him $25,000 in this case.”
“His pitch was [that] an abscess of brain damage, mental illness, and medication side effects put Daniel Marsh into a dreamlike dissociative state in which he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Therefore [he] should be acquitted.”
He continued, “This guy is under oath,” he laid out the doctor’s credentials, and then said the doctor stated, “Daniel Marsh was born two months premature.”
“In his re-direct, [the prosecutor] brings out all of the birth records for Daniel Marsh, he reads it out, ‘full term no need of resuscitation’ – so what this guy said was kind of wrong, you know,” Mr. Billingsley stated. “It was kind of like false. He says Marsh has brain damage, so [Prosecutor] Cabral brings Eric Mitchell, radiologist… done thousands of MRIs. Said he found no abnormalities in Daniel Marsh.”
Merikangas was questioned more by DDA Cabral about Daniel’s “dreamlike state.” Cabral asked, “So when do you think Daniel began his dreamlike state, was it after he stole the mask, after he sharpened the knife?”
“I don’t know, he doesn’t know, do not know the timing,” asserted the doctor.
Mr. Billingsley, citing Mr. Cabral, stated, “Then after these murders, when Daniel Marsh was in school and he nudges his friend, he says, hey I made the newspaper, was he in the dreamlike state then? Key moment in the trial.” He added, “He couldn’t say, the expert, he just couldn’t say.”
“Just so you know depression meds, they don’t cause someone to eviscerate someone and a put a cellphone inside the body to throw off the cops,” he said. “Just so you know.”
“This Merikangas, he made himself look like a fool. But he wins, because he gets his fee,” Mr. Billingsley stated. He said, “There will be no perjury charges… That’s something that maybe we ought to talk about. That was false information.”
In rejecting the defense claims that a combination of factors were involved, Mr. Billingsley misstated the testimony of Dr. Merikangas who had explained that Daniel suffers from manic depressive disorder, dissociative disorder, de-personalization and anorexia nervosa.
Dr. Merikangas explained that the psychologists were not qualified to give an accurate assessment of Daniel. “They are not medical doctors, they did not examine his brain, his physical body or talk with him enough to know what was going on with him, and his psychiatrist just kept prescribing more meds,” stated the doctor.
Dr. Merikangas stated that he would never have mixed Wellbutrin with Zoloft because they have the same side effects. “It is just wrong to give it with other meds, I would not have continued meds, you need to find out what’s going on,” asserted the doctor. He explained that Zoloft is 17 times more likely to cause increased aggression in children than in adults, causing them to become more violent.
Lloyd Billingsley rejected the defense explanation of insanity. In fact, he mocked it. He argued that taking anti-depressant drugs is not tied to reading books about serial killers. Mr. Billingsley stated, “He liked them, he admired the way they escaped capture,” he said.
He then cited from testimony, “You know this guy researched serial killers, I’m not aware of any research showing Zoloft causes people to research serial killers.” He quipped, “That was a key moment in the trial.”
Instead of insanity, he came to the conclusion that Daniel Marsh killed the elderly couple because he enjoyed it – which, while it made for good theatrics, falls short of an explanation.
He simply brackets the “enjoyment” hypothesis as though that were the root cause, without questioning why he obtained enjoyment from inflicting harm on others and without questioning or discussing whether that underlying cause was in the range of “normal” or whether that cause was itself a symptom of something deeper, rather than the bottom line explanation as he portrayed it.
One of the themes Mr. Billingsley presented was also one he raised in his interview with the Enterprise: “There was this idea that Marsh, because he was young, was somehow a victim of the system. His lapses were linked to other people’s failures.”
Part of what was missing from Mr. Billingsley’s account is an acknowledgement that Daniel Marsh was 15 years old when he committed these crimes. So the idea that the community might look at the adults who are supposed to be watching out for Mr. Marsh’s best interests as a possible underlying problem is not to dismissed as simply as Mr. Billingsley wants to do.
He said that “he was surprised by the level of community sympathy for Marsh.”
I think a lot of people in the community are not simply willing to buy into Mr. Billingsley’s explanation that Daniel Marsh was evil and killed the two because he liked it. Is there some truth to that? Yes, but it’s a simplistic statement that really doesn’t help things.
Is Daniel Marsh an extreme case? Absolutely. Are there other kids who go through what Daniel Marsh went through life and escaped without becoming murderers? Of course.
But that does not mean that Daniel Marsh received the proper care and attention in the months and years leading up to the murders. Yes, he had a huge support network, but there were also breakdowns in that network.
Ultimately, Mr. Billingsley ignores any analysis of this and focuses on the sensational and headline-grabbing soundbites and book title. In so doing, he does a disservice to a very complex issue.
—David M. Greenwald reporting