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 Property of Folsom Wolf, 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 Wolf 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.
At their apartment one day, Coffman said, a stranger showed up to tell her that her boyfriend had been moved to a different jail. It was Marlow, who had just been released from jail.
“I thought it was strange for him to show up at my door,” Coffman said. But her first impression was that he was “nice looking.” The sparks flew.
Soon the couple was kicking around high desert haunts, often indulging in injections of crystal methamphetamine. Eventually, they headed east for Kentucky and the start of a violent cross-country rampage. Coffman and Marlow were charged with the execution-style slaying of a Kentucky drug dealer. Marlow told police he shot the dealer with Coffman’s help for $5,000. Because of the death penalty cases here, that case has not been pursued.
Along the way, Coffman and Marlow were unofficially married atop a motorcycle during what Gumlia called a “biker wedding.” During numerous angry fits, Gumlia said, Marlow beat and bit Coffman and hacked off her hair, which was crew-cut length at the time of her arrest. Always, he apologized and showered his girlfriend with affection, Gumlia said. They eventually drifted back to California.
On Nov. 7, 1986, Coffman and Marlow approached Corinna Novis at the Redlands Mall in San Bernardino County and asked for a ride. At gunpoint, Novis was taken to the home of a friend of Marlow, handcuffed and gagged, then sexually assaulted. Coffman and Marlow were convicted of strangling Novis, who was found buried face down in a Fontana field.
Three days later, authorities allege, the pair rode in Novis’ Honda to the Orange County coast, where they lived off her bank and credit cards and prowled beach towns for their next victim.
On Nov. 12, they found her, and the resemblance to Novis was striking.
Lynell Murray, a Golden West College student with pretty brown hair and long red fingernails, was working part time at a Huntington Beach dry cleaners, about to close up when Coffman approached her alone.
The pair robbed the business of cash and clothes, then forced Murray into the Honda and drove to the Huntington Beach Inn. There, she was raped by Marlow, beaten, blindfolded and strangled with a towel, authorities say. A maid arriving to clean the room found her face down in a full bathtub.
On Nov. 14, after wiping the car clean of fingerprints and abandoning it in the Running Springs community in the San Bernardino Mountains, Coffman and Marlow were captured in Big Bear during a police dragnet. At their woodsy motel room, police found several of Murray’s earrings, described in a police bulletin as possible “trophies.”
Had she not been sent to Orange County to face the second murder charge, Coffman would have been the first woman on Death Row since Californians reinstated capital punishment 15 years ago. Maureen McDermott, a Los Angeles nurse convicted of ordering the stabbing murder of her roommate, awaits appeals there alone.
In order to win the death penalty he is seeking against Coffman, Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert C. Gannon Jr. must prove she is guilty of murder with a special circumstance--in this case, murder in the course of a burglary, rape, kidnaping or robbery.
But Gannon must also show that Coffman intended for Murray to die, a legal requirement at the time of the murders that has been changed. It was established to prevent execution of those who “aid and abet” a killing.
Gannon declined requests to be interviewed. But Haight, the prosecutor for her first trial, said jurors believed that Coffman wanted Novis murdered.
“She’s a very bright woman,” he said. “She is very manipulative and very clever, and she reeked of sexuality. . . . The jury could see that manipulation, and the women jurors were more against her than the men. She came off so much smarter than (Marlow), and the jury told me they didn’t believe this guy sitting there was outsmarting her, out-manipulating her.”
For now, Coffman passes the time in jail studying history. She has ambitions of a college degree and teaching fellow inmates.
She followed much of the Harris execution coverage, and remembers a story chronicling how an execution occurs--"This is where you go, this is what happens, and I thought: ‘Oh my God!’ ”
Each Sunday night she calls her mother and exchanges letters monthly with her son. He assumes she is in jail on drug charges, but one day she knows he will have to be told the truth.
“I know I want to be the one to tell him,” Coffman said, "(but) what could you say to him to make him understand? I don’t think you ever could.”