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Guilt Conceded in Motel Murder : Trial: Attorney is trying to spare convicted killer James Gregory Marlow from the death penalty in a Huntington Beach strangling.

March 05, 1992|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A defense attorney for convicted sex killer James Gregory Marlow conceded his client's guilt Wednesday at the start of his trial for murdering a second woman, telling jurors that the defense's goal is to save Marlow from the gas chamber.

Marlow, 35, is charged with the 1986 killing of a Huntington Beach woman, with four special circumstances: burglary, robbery, kidnaping and rape. Conviction on any one of those circumstances along with a murder conviction would mean Marlow would face a sentence of death or life in prison without parole.

His attorney, George A. Peters, told the jury that at some point during presentation of the prosecution's case, which also began Wednesday, he may plead Marlow guilty. The trial would then proceed immediately to the penalty phase, in which the jury would decide whether to recommend that Marlow be sentenced to death.

Trial attorneys commonly refer to this tactic, which applies only in capital cases, as a "slow plea." During a recess, Peters explained that it would spare the jury from having to wrestle with a defendant's fate twice, while hearing much of the same gruesome evidence.

Marlow and his girlfriend, Cynthia Lynn Coffman, 29, have already been sentenced to death in the November, 1986, rape and murder of a Redlands woman, Corrina D. Novis, 28. Novis was an insurance clerk who gave the couple a ride at a Redlands mall and was taken to a San Bernardino house, where Marlow and Coffman were staying with his relatives. Novis was sexually molested, then taken in handcuffs to Fontana, prosecutors said, where she was strangled and buried in a shallow grave.

The transient couple is charged with abducting Lynel Murray, 19, five days later from a Huntington Beach dry cleaners where she worked.

Marlow and Coffman were scheduled to be tried together, as they had been in San Bernardino in 1989 for killing Novis. But earlier this week, Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin ruled that Marlow, who has a long prison and arrest record, will be tried first in the Huntington Beach case, followed by Coffman, because there appears to be a conflict between their defenses.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert A. Gannon outlined his case to the jury in his opening statement, saying that Murray was robbed at gunpoint at the dry cleaners by the couple, then abducted. Murray was then taken in handcuffs in Novis' stolen car to an oceanfront Huntington Beach motel, Gannon said, where she was raped and strangled with a towel.

The motel bill was paid for with Novis' credit card, he said.

In an earlier brief, Gannon said that "both victims were attractive young women with bright red fingernails (who) actually resembled each other."

Marlow and Coffman were arrested in Big Bear Lake several days after the Murray killing because some of their identification papers were found with Novis' credit cards and identification in a Laguna Beach dumping bin.

The couple subsequently admitted the killings in statements to police, according to court filings.

Peters, in an effort to establish some mitigating circumstances, told jurors that they would be confronted with "two sets of horrific facts": details about Marlow's murders and about his troubled upbringing, which he said was "horrendous by any standard."

The death penalty in this case, Peters said, would be "unfair."

Marlow and Coffman also face a third murder charge, an earlier killing-for-hire of a 28-year-old man in Kentucky, where Marlow once lived.

Under the circumstances, Peters acknowledged, saving his client from the gas chamber will not be easy.

"When you have three bodies, it is a tough sell" to persuade a jury, Peters said. "We're not offering excuses."

What happened is "inexcusable," he said.

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