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First Woman in 12 Years Sentenced to Gas Chamber

August 31, 1989|JERRY HICKS | Times Staff Writer

SAN BERNARDINO — Cynthia Lynn Coffman, who admitted helping her boyfriend kill two young women in a five-day crime rampage in Orange and San Bernardino counties, Wednesday became the first woman sentenced to death in California since capital punishment was reinstated 12 years ago.

Coffman, 27, sitting eight feet from co-defendant James Gregory Marlow, 33, tearfully told a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge, "I'm sorry for what happened and I'm ashamed that I let it happen."

But Judge Don A. Turner, who upheld jury death verdicts for both of them, said Coffman "was in this thing up to the hilt, and enjoyed it right up to the last minute."

Coffman and Marlow, who has a long prison and arrest record, were convicted of first-degree murder five months ago for the Nov. 7, 1986, slaying of 20-year-old insurance clerk Corinna Novis. The young Redlands woman agreed to give the couple a ride when they approached her in the parking lot of the Redlands Mall earlier that day.

The two now are scheduled to stand trial in Orange County in the murder of 19-year-old Lynell Murray of Huntington Beach, who was kidnaped from the Huntington Beach dry cleaners where she worked, then strangled at an oceanfront motel five days after Novis was killed. Details of Murray's slaying were presented to jurors at the penalty phase of the couple's trial in San Bernardino.

The two are also under indictment in Whitley City, Ky., in the July 7, 1986, killing of 28-year-old Gregory Hill, allegedly as a murder-for-hire. Coffman has admitted that she was with Marlow when he killed the man and then bought a motorcycle he called "Big Red" with part of the money he was paid.

Coffman, the mother of a 9-year-old son, will be sent to the Correctional Institution for Women at Frontera. If her appeals, expected to take at least seven years, are unsuccessful, she would be executed at San Quentin State Prison, site of the state's gas chamber.

The last woman executed in California was Elizabeth Ann Duncan, on Aug. 8, 1962, for the murder of her daughter-in-law in Ventura County. The last women sentenced to death in California were three followers of Charles Manson--Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten--in 1971.

Judge Turner said from the bench that circumstances of the two Southland murders were so aggravating that "any jury anywhere" should have returned death verdicts against the two.

But Turner said he had thought the chances were 50-50 that the jury might have returned the lesser verdict of life without parole for Coffman.

"It's still very difficult for judges and juries to vote death for an attractive young woman," Turner said. "But this jury got to know (Coffman) too well."

Coffman moved to California from Missouri, the judge said, because she found middle-class married life dull. But when she met Marlow, he said, "the two of them just clicked."

"For Ms. Coffman, here was a man who was thrilling, who was exciting, who was dangerous," Turner said. "One of the reasons she was fascinated with Mr. Marlow and made him her man is that he had the strength to do the things she could not do."

Both defendants intended for both victims to die in order to eliminate witnesses, the judge said.

Sitting in the front row listening to the judge were William and Donna Novis, parents of the Redlands victim, and Jackie Murray, stepmother of the young Huntington Beach victim.

"I feel really good about this. I'm not looking forward to another trial," Jackie Murray said of the upcoming Orange County prosecution of Marlow and Coffman. "But I know it's necessary."

The Novis couple, from Gooding, Ida., had spent months living in their camper during the trial, and returned by camper for the sentencing hearing.

"We had to come back," William Novis said. "We had to see it made official."

Marlow and Coffman had once been lovers--he called her his Sinful and she has "Property of Folsom Wolf," his nickname, tattooed on her bottom. But by the time of the trial, they were enemies. They asked for separate trials, which the judge refused.

Coffman testified she was under Marlow's domination during the two-county murder binge. She told jurors that during their short relationship, Marlow had raped her, beaten her and cut off all her hair. She said he once told her, " 'I am the devil, and I own you.' "

Coffman testified that she believed Marlow only intended to kidnap and rob Novis, not kill her. After the two kidnaped Murray at a Huntington Beach dry cleaners where she worked, Coffman admitted that she helped twist a towel around the victim's neck in a Huntington Beach motel room. But she claims Marlow, who has admitted his role in all the crimes to police, forced her to do it.

But prosecutors in both San Bernardino and Orange counties claim that although Marlow may have been the actual killer, Coffman was equally responsible for the murders.

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