By Lloyd Billingsley
Inmate AW0819 Daniel Marsh, formerly of Davis, is now serving time at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego. Marsh’s attorney was Yolo County public defender Ron Johnson, an alumni of the UC Davis School of Law. The case marks a contrast to a recent murder trial handled by UC Davis law graduate Joe Alexander, a deputy district attorney in El Dorado County.
On April 14, 2013, Daniel Marsh, then 15, murdered Oliver “Chip” Northup, 87, and his wife Claudia Maupin, 76, in their south Davis residence. Police were baffled until two of Marsh’s friends blew the whistle on him. In an interview of nearly five hours, Marsh confessed to the crime. He pleaded not guilty and Ron Johnson sought to have the confession tossed.
When that failed, Marsh changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. Johnson brought in neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. James Merikangas, who testified that brain damage and depression medications put Marsh in a dream-like dissociative state at the time of the murders. The jury rejected the insanity defense and Marsh drew a sentence of 52 years to life, with possibility of parole.
Several months before the Northup-Maupin murders, on January 6, 2013, attorney David Weiner called 911 to report a homicide at a Placerville residence. Bob Harris, 72, formerly with the U.S. Forest Service, lay dead from a shotgun blast to the head. His wife Colleen claimed to have no memory of how her husband died. The case landed with Joe Alexander who made a startling discovery.
Nearly 30 years earlier, the same woman stood trial for the murder of her second husband James Batten, a surveyor and former U.S. Air Force survival trainer. Both times she was going through marital difficulties. Both times she killed her husband in the bedroom, with a shotgun. Both times she delayed reporting the crime and in both cases she claimed a loss of memory. David Weiner represented her in both cases.
In 1986, psychiatrist Dr. Norman Tresser testified that Colleen Batten suffered from “psychogenic amnesia.” She gained acquittal and nearly 30 years later that presented a problem for Alexander. In cases of acquittal, the trial transcript can be tossed after 10 years. So instead of the actual record, the court heard testimony from a reporter who covered the previous trial.
The defense did not bring in a new expert and Dr. Tresser did not testify. Instead the defendant tried to evoke his previous testimony, and Alexander successfully objected that he would be unable to cross-examine. The defendant’s memory, it emerged, seemed to fail her only when her husband had been killed. Even so, Alexander focused on the physical evidence.
Pathologist Gregory Reiber showed why Bob Harris’s death could not have been a suicide. The evidence showed that Bob Harris had been shot while asleep or at rest, and that his wife Colleen had altered the crime scene.
In April the El Dorado County jury found Colleen Harris guilty of first-degree murder. She is now inmate WF2509 serving 50 years to life at the Central California Women’s Facility. The Harris and Marsh cases, however, signal more than a win for Joe Alexander and a loss for Ron Johnson.
The Marsh jury was skeptical that a meticulously planned double murder could be blamed on a dissociative state. The Harris jury reserved reasonable doubt for psychological ailments that make someone forget they are a murderer. In both cases the physical evidence trumped expert opinion. That’s a victory for the cause of justice, but other reforms demand attention.
As the Harris case showed, the practice of tossing trial transcripts amounts to destruction of evidence. All information in public trials belongs to the people and the record should be preserved for public examination. Some day it might prove helpful to someone wrongly accused, which happens all the time.
Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Shotgun Weddings, a new book on the Batten and Harris cases. He wrote several stories for the Vanguard on the Marsh trial, the subject of his 2014 book Exceptional Depravity.