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Condemned and Waiting : Cynthia Coffman Came West for a New Life; Now She Faces 2nd Death Sentence

April 26, 1992|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Here we are in "the Cindy Room," surrounded by remnants of her violent past and, possibly, her deadly future.

From this cubbyhole near the Orange County Courthouse, two public defenders are marshaling their arguments to save Cynthia Lynn Coffman, the first woman sentenced to California's gas chamber since the Manson followers.

There is the bulletin board of color snapshots: the Fontana vineyard where the first victim was buried; Cindy smiling broadly with her attorneys; a close-up of her behind tattooed with \o7 Property of Folsom Wolf, \f7 her co-defendant's prison nickname, and there is the smiling face of the last victim who was raped and strangled in the tub of a seaside motel.

Across the street, the former factory worker and mother of a fifth-grader spends an afternoon answering questions at the Orange County Jail, where she spends her days in isolation, studying history, reading the novels of American Indians and Danielle Steele.

"I'm afraid of the death penalty . . .but I'd hope to go to a better place than here," said Coffman, 30, in the first interview since her arrest--conducted just days before Robert Alton Harris was executed. "But I'd still rather have life."

Three years ago, Coffman was sentenced to die for the 1986 San Bernardino County kidnaping, robbery, sodomy and murder of 20-year-old Corinna Novis. This week, she faces the same fate in the abduction and slaying of Lynell Murray, 19, of Huntington Beach.

A Missouri Catholic girl who got divorced and looked for a new life out West, Coffman rode shotgun for months with James Gregory Marlow, a powerfully built Kentucky outlaw and speed addict who sported tattoos all over his body.

Why she stuck with Marlow during a kinky 1986 cross-country crime rampage, in which they married atop a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, will be disputed. And it may, in the end, figure critically in the jury's decision on whether she lives or dies.

"At the first trial (her) attorneys wanted so much to convince the jury that she was afraid of Marlow they didn't want to show that she loved him," said Leonard Gumlia, a deputy public defender and Coffman's lead attorney. "There will be no question for the (current) jury that this was a classic battered-woman situation."

Her attorneys argue that she was so battered, starved and brainwashed by Marlow that she was afraid to bolt when given the opportunity. Some court insiders have called it the Patty Hearst defense. Lawyers for Coffman, who has pleaded not guilty, will argue that she acted under the control of Marlow, who beat and stabbed her.

Whether she was an unwilling accomplice or avid participant in Murray's murder will factor into a key question facing the jury.

"I'm trying to understand myself why I did things," Coffman said, scratching the bandage covering the word \o7 Wolf\f7 tattooed around her ring finger, "but I'm still not all the way yet."

What is not in dispute is that everything in this case circles back to the electric attraction between Marlow and Coffman. He called her Cynful, she called him Squeeze, and even after their arrest they exchanged passionate love letters from their cells, using sideways hearts to create the letter B and swastikas to dot I's.

"They were two flaky sociopaths separately," said Raymond Haight, the San Bernardino County deputy district attorney whose prosecution resulted in death sentences for the couple. "But you put them together and it was like Bonnie and Clyde all the way."

Slim and pretty with brown hair spilling down her back, Coffman wore lipstick and mascara and appeared in good spirits, smiling and laughing with ease during a two-hour interview. Born Cynthia Haskins, she was raised in lower middle-class St. Louis neighborhoods. Her father left by the time she was 6, and her mother had once tried to give her and her two brothers away. Her father's desertion was the first of several formative events that, her defense claims, left her in need of the attentions of the wrong kind of man.

"To get attention I'd get in trouble, and for that," Coffman said with an amused sigh, "I'll always remember the taste of Dove."

The spring of her sophomore year, she smoked her first marijuana joint. She was married and a mother at 18. After little more than a year, the marriage unraveled.

For the next few years she struggled to support her son, Josh, on the swing shift at a carburetor factory. Sizing up her dead-end job, Gumlia said, Coffman decided to travel with a girlfriend and "start over" in Page, Ariz., where she planned to bring her son once she settled.

"Almost as soon as she got there she wanted to find a man, any man," Gumlia said. "The truth is, Cindy always had to have a guy around."

Within a month she had found one. Some time later he was arrested on a warrant and delivered to a Barstow jail. Coffman followed him.

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