Marcella Leach dies at 85; advocate for Marsy's Law on victims' rights

Marcella Leach, an advocate for victims' rights after the killing of her daughter, has died. She was 85

Marcella Leach, who became a leading advocate for crime victims' rights after the brutal murder of her college-student daughter, died March 15 at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. She was 85.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease, said her son, Henry T. Nicholas III.

Leach was a key backer of the Victims' Bill of Rights proposition in California that was approved by voters in 2008. Also known as Marsy's Law — for Leach's daughter Marsalee Nicholas, who was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1983 — it was a landmark provision that called for increased protections of victims.

A part of the law specifically important to Leach and her son stipulated that the safety of victims and their families would be considered when setting bail for the accused.

"After the funeral service, we were driving home and stopped at a market so my mother could just run in and get a loaf of bread," Henry Nicholas said in an interview Friday. "And there in the checkout line was my sister's murderer, glowering at her."

Henry Nicholas, who in 1991 co-founded Broadcom Corp., which became an electronics giant, said he and his mother were not told that accused killer Kerry Conley had made bail. Nicholas donated more than $4 million to the campaign for the victims' rights proposition.

Leach, who Patricia Wenskunas said in an online tribute "could be as direct as a freight train," helped found the advocacy organization Justice for Homicide Victims in the mid-1980s and was interviewed numerous times about victims' rights, capital punishment and related topics.

On CNN's "Larry King Live" in 1990, she spoke of her feelings toward Conley, who was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

"He is taking classes; he works out with weights; he listens to TV," Leach said of the killer. "He visits his parents on little picnic tables; he's gotten married.

"And I visit my daughter in the cemetery."

Leach attended Conley's parole hearings, where he was denied release. He died in prison in December 2007 and Leach did not hide her feelings about his demise.

"I said, 'Well, one thing we accomplished is God took him,' " she told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. "Somewhere about a week before Christmas. Best present I ever got."

Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who was the campaign manager for Marsy's Law, said Leach's blunt public statements helped her deal with the personal tragedy. He said he has found that common among victims of heinous crimes. "It's that style that allows them to couch their suffering and channel that into advocacy," Spitzer said in an interview this week.

In private moments, especially on key dates such as anniversaries of her daughter's murder, Leach would get "very sad, very melancholy," Spitzer said. But when it came time to defend her cause, "she was resilient and resolved."

Long before that personal tragedy, she showed signs of that resolve.

She was born Marcella Martin on Aug. 23, 1929, in Louisville, Ky. She graduated from the University of Louisville and became a teacher in Cincinnati, working up to a position as a school administrator. But her first husband, Tom Nicholas, was an alcoholic and unfaithful, Henry Nicholas said. In the mid-1960s, "She threw him out, rented a U-Haul and we headed for California," he said.

Using a $5,000 academic grant, she enrolled in a journalism graduate program at UCLA and got a master's degree.

In 1967 she married television writer Robert Leach — who wrote for series such as "Perry Mason," "Ripcord" and "Men Into Space" — and they settled in Malibu.

On Nov. 30, 1983, Marsy Nicholas was lured to Conley's nearby home, according to prosecutors at his trial. She was a senior at UC Santa Barbara who planned to teach disabled children. Conley had been her boyfriend, but they had broken up.

Leach said she went to see him because he had threatened suicide. "She went down to save him," Leach told the Monterey County Herald in 2007, "and he met her with a shotgun."

Conley shot Marsy Nicholas in the head, and she died several hours later at Westlake Hospital.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Leach was contacted by Ellen Griffin Dunne, mother of actress Dominique Dunne. "She comforted us, then told us how her daughter was strangled by an ex-boyfriend, and he only got manslaughter," Leach told The Times in 2008. "She said, 'Let's get something going where we can fight and change things.' And that's what we did."

Dunne is listed as the founder of Justice for Homicide Victims; both Marcella and Robert Leach served as officers of the group.

Leach, who also worked with other victims' groups, spent the rest of her life as an advocate.

"People are suddenly realizing this can happen to them," she said in a 1997 Times interview. "They don't have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they don't have to be unlucky. This can happen to anyone."

She is survived by her son. Robert Leach died in 2008.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcolker

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