A jury returned death verdicts Thursday against a transient couple accused in a crime spree in Orange and San Bernardino counties that left two young women dead in 1986.
Unless the judge rejects the jury verdict, Cynthia Lynn Coffman, 26, will become the first woman sentenced to death in California since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977, according to state prison authorities.
Coffman and her former boyfriend, James Gregory Marlow, 33, were convicted three months ago in the Nov. 7, 1986, death of insurance clerk Corinna Novis, 20, who was kidnaped outside the Redlands Mall and found dumped in a field near Fontana.
At the penalty phase of their trial, prosecutors also accused them of the Nov. 12, 1986, death of Lynell Murray, 19, who was kidnaped at the Prime Time Cleaners in Huntington Beach, where she worked. Her body was found in a room at the Huntington Beach Inn the next day. Both victims had been strangled and sexually assaulted.
Coffman broke into tears when the verdict was read. She was escorted from the courtroom in leg chains, walking past the large crowd of onlookers with her head down and wiping at tears with a sleeve.
Marlow appeared to scowl at jurors when the verdict was read and glared around at the crowd as he sauntered from the courtroom a few feet behind Coffman.
After formal sentencing for the Novis murder by San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Don A. Turner on July 27, the two will be transferred to Orange County, where they will stand trial in the Murray slaying.
Orange County prosecutors have said they will seek death verdicts against both.
Coffman and Marlow have admitted both murders in statements to police. Coffman also said that she was under Marlow’s control at the time and that he threatened to kill her if she did not participate.
But San Bernardino Deputy Dist. Atty. Raymond L. Haight said it was obvious that jurors had rejected Coffman’s defense.
“I think it’s clear from the evidence that she was every bit as responsible for these crimes occurring as Marlow,” Haight said. “This was the appropriate penalty for her. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have asked for it.”
When they were arrested two days after
the Murray killing, Marlow’s hair was long and Coffman’s was cropped short, almost military style. On Thursday, Coffman had long hair and Marlow had shaved his head. Court officials said he did it just a few days ago.
Although the two had maintained a love interest for several months after their arrest, according to their jailhouse letters confiscated by officials, they have since become enemies. Each has accused the other of primary responsibility for the crimes.
Coffman’s attorneys left the courtroom without speaking to reporters. Marlow’s attorney, Cheryl Andre, said that despite the strong evidence against her client, “it’s still a shock to hear a verdict of death.”
Andre said the judge’s refusal to grant the pair separate trials hurt Coffman’s chances for a lesser verdict.
The jurors, seven men and five women, deliberated for four days in the penalty phase. They had just one choice for each defendant: death in the gas chamber or life without parole. Many law enforcement observers had feared that jurors would return a death verdict for Marlow but a lesser penalty for Coffman.
After the verdicts were read, jurors refused to talk to reporters. But some later hugged members of the victim’s family and close friends.
“We’re all so sorry this tragic thing happened,” one juror told some of the Novis friends.
A second juror said, “Now I can get back to a normal life--if anything can be normal after this.”
Another juror said he still has butterflies in his stomach from all the tension. “I’m glad it’s over--we did what we thought was right,” he said.
William Novis, the victim’s father, said he and his wife, Donna, will begin the drive in their camper back to Idaho early this morning.
“I hoped and prayed this day would come,” he said.
Marlow and Coffman met each other just a few months before the killings, when he was in jail in Barstow and she was visiting a friend there. She has told officials that the two then traveled back to Whitley, Ky., where Marlow once lived, and killed a man in a robbery.
She has said they then returned to San Bernardino County to stay with friends. Coffman testified that she thought Marlow meant only to rob Novis, not kill her. After dumping her body, they drove Novis’ car to Huntington Beach.
Coffman testified that Marlow said, “We’re going to the beach, ‘cause that’s where the rich people live.”
According to court records and testimony, Marlow and Coffman were devoted to each other. He called her “Sinful,” and she had his nickname from prison, “Folsom Wolf,” tattooed on her bottom.
Coffman has admitted that she became jealous when she saw Marlow in the shower with the second victim, Murray, in their Huntington Beach Inn room. She has also admitted that she helped Marlow twist a towel around the victim’s neck, although she testified that she did so out of fear of him.
Several witnesses appeared to contradict Coffman’s story that she was not a willing participant. The two killers were seen kissing at length in front of the cleaners shortly before Murray was kidnaped. After her slaying, the couple were seen kissing at a restaurant.
They used Murray’s credit card to check into the Bavarian Lodge at Big Bear Lake but left without spending the night after learning from friends that police were searching for them. Left behind on a pad in their room was evidence that Coffman had practiced copying Murray’s handwriting.
The two were identified as suspects when some of their identification papers were found near the dumpster in Newport Beach where they had dumped some of Novis’ identification papers.
The two were found walking along a road in the Big Bear area when they were arrested.
After her arrest, Coffman led police to the vineyard near Fontana where Novis’ body was buried in a shallow grave. She was bound and gagged.
According to state prison officials, California now has 255 men on Death Row at San Quentin. Once Coffman is sentenced, she is expected to be housed at the state women’s prison at Frontera, prison officials said. However, if she is ever executed, she would be transferred to San Quentin, which has the state’s only gas chamber.
The last woman to be executed in California was Elizabeth Ann Duncan, in a Ventura County case. She was executed Aug. 8, 1962, for killing her daughter-in-law.