VISTA — In a plea bargain that saved him from possible execution in the gas chamber, a former Marine pleaded guilty Wednesday to the first-degree murder of a Camp Pendleton Marine sergeant and will now face a virtually certain sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Mark Schulz was the triggerman in the murder plot against Carlo Troiani instigated by Laura Troiani, who previously was convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison.
"I killed Carlo Troiani, and I did so while lying in wait, with a firearm, a .357 magnum," Schulz, his voice cracking, said to Vista Superior Court Judge Gilbert Nares.
Carlo Troiani was shot twice from behind by Schulz the night of Aug. 9, 1984, after being lured to a desolate Oceanside road on the pretense that his wife had car trouble. Laura Troiani sat behind the wheel of the car and tapped the brake pedal, using the brake lights as a signal to Schulz to move out from his hiding place and shoot her husband as he got out of his own car and approached hers.
Death Sentence Risk
Schulz previously had pleaded not guilty to the murder by reason of insanity, but agreed to plead guilty, his attorneys said, rather than run the risk of being found guilty and sane by a jury--which could have led to a death sentence.
"Our job was to save his life and we did," Thomas Smith, one of Schulz's two court-appointed defense attorneys, said after the hourlong hearing.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Phil Walden said Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller agreed to the plea bargain and not to seek the death penalty against Schulz because it was consistent with the jury's findings against Troiani. Prosecutors also agreed to drop a second special circumstance allegation, that Schulz murdered for financial gain by having expected to receive $500 for his role.
"Our feeling was that since we tried the instigator and put every piece of evidence before the jury, and they returned a sentence of life without parole, we felt it was certainly a just result to allow an 18-year-old Marine who she hired to do the killing to receive the same sentence," Walden said.
"We attempted to seek the death penalty on Laura Troiani and 12 members of the community told us what the case was worth. If they said life without parole for her (was appropriate), it was (consistent) to give him life without parole too."
Co-Defendants Were Marines
Schulz was to have been the first of five co-defendants, all Marines at the time of the murder, to face charges of first-degree murder for their roles in Troiani's killing. Walden said he "would not be surprised" if the other defense attorneys propose their own plea bargains, but he would not elaborate on what terms he would agree to for the others.
One other co-defendant, Russell Harrison, was at the murder scene but is not alleged to have actually shot Troiani. The other three co-defendants were at a nearby convenience store, biding their time and watching Laura Troiani's two young children.
Schulz, now 22, will be sentenced by Nares on Dec. 16.
A psychiatrist hired by the defense had argued in court papers that Schulz was temporarily insane at the time of the killing, "blacking out" just before the shooting and not regaining full consciousness until afterward. That blackout, said Dr. Philip Solomon, was a symptom of "attention deficit disorder," which went undiagnosed when Schulz was a child and haunted him during his upbringing because of resulting learning disabilities.
Two court-appointed psychiatrists had submitted to Nares, on the other hand, that Schulz was not insane at the time of the killing.
Lead defense attorney Dan Cronin said he was holding out hope that the judge might sentence his client to a term of 27 years to life in prison versus life without the possibility of parole.
To do that, Nares would have to dismiss the special circumstance of lying in wait--one of several criteria that qualify the death sentence in California--even though Schulz admitted to it Wednesday.
Cronin said Schulz had second thoughts about the insanity plea because it might have condemned him to life in a mental hospital. Instead, Cronin said he would ask Nares to consider Schulz's mental condition as a mitigating factor to justify leniency toward the former Marine.
Walden said he did not expect Nares to dismiss the special circumstance admission by Schulz, especially since Nares previously had described the prosecution's case against Troiani as "simply overwhelming . . . a tsunami of evidence."