The Porsche, the parties, and the Cancun beaches she savored as a newly rich widow now only a memory, Mary Ellen Samuels sat stunned Thursday as a jury recommended that she be executed for orchestrating the murders of her estranged husband and the man she hired to kill him.
A hush fell over the packed Van Nuys courtroom as the jury delivered the verdict.
Samuels, 45, did not change expressions as a court clerk read the verdict of the jury--reached after two days of deliberations. But she was unable to respond when the judge asked her a procedural question, and her eyes filled with tears as she was escorted from the courtroom.
Superior Court Judge Michael R. Hoff scheduled sentencing for Sept. 16. If he carries out the jury's recommendation, Samuels will join four other women on California's Death Row. All have been sentenced by Southern California juries, one of them in the same Van Nuys courthouse where Samuels was tried.
As they left the courtroom, members of the jury used words such as "cold," "selfish," "uncaring" and "evil" to describe Samuels.
"I thought she was trash," jury foreman Nick Catran-Whitney said. "She had no values."
Samuels was dubbed the "green widow" by police and prosecutors because she spent her husband's $500,000 estate in less than a year after he was murdered.
She was convicted July 1 on two counts of first-degree murder, and the jury found special circumstances that warranted the death penalty--that she orchestrated multiple murders and that she killed for financial gain.
Robert Samuels, a 40-year-old motion picture camera assistant who worked on the films "Lethal Weapon" and "Heaven Can Wait," was shot in the back of the head with a shotgun in his Northridge home Dec. 8, 1988.
The day after his body was found, the suspected hit man took out a $25,000 life insurance policy, naming Samuels' daughter, Nicole, as beneficiary. Seven months later, he was dead--strangled, beaten and dumped along the highway in an isolated Ventura County canyon.
Trial testimony was lurid. Tales of murder and treachery poured forth from witnesses, stories involving steamy love letters, shopping sprees, limousines, cocaine parties, hit men, insurance checks, fast cars, male strippers, mother-daughter cheesecake photos and a talking pet parrot who cursed the police.
A key prosecution exhibit was a photograph of Samuels taken by a lover less than nine months after her husband's slaying, on a hotel bed in Cancun, her naked body covered only by $20,000 in cash.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Maurizi alleged that greed was Samuels' motivation in a crime "so bizarre no fiction writer could write it. She almost got away with the perfect murder."
Samuels arranged to have her husband killed when she learned he planned to divorce her, Maurizi said.
As his ex-wife, Samuels would have received a $30,000 settlement and monthly alimony payments of $1,100, according to testimony. But as a widow, she inherited $500,000--including her husband's house, his Subway sandwich shop and the proceeds from several insurance policies.
The defense had argued that Samuels was a victim of domestic abuse and that Nicole Samuels-Moroianu, who testified on her mother's behalf, had been sexually abused from age 12 by Robert Samuels, her stepfather.
"It's not 'Leave It to Beaver.' It's not 'Make Room for Daddy.' This was a dysfunctional family," defense attorney Phil Nameth had told the jury.
But jurors rejected that argument, saying the defense offered no proof to support the accusations by Samuels and her daughter.
One male juror described Samuels' testimony as "a pack of lies."
After her husband's death, Samuels testified, she used the insurance money to pay bills, and her lifestyle did not change. But prosecution testimony showed that Samuels defaulted on her mortgage payments, paid cash for a new Porsche, rented limousines for bar-hopping jaunts, and lent money to her friends. She spent thousands on trips to Las Vegas and Cancun, and on fur coats and custom outfits. She threw a huge birthday party for herself at the Knollwood Country Club four months after her husband's slaying.
Robert Bernstein, the 27-year-old suspected hit man, was slain because Samuels feared that he would succumb to police pressure and implicate her, Maurizi said. Bernstein died believing he was engaged to Samuels' daughter.
As they filed out of the courtroom, jurors paused to embrace Robert Samuels' sister, Susan Conroy, who sported his portrait on a large button she had pinned to her sweater. Conroy attended the four-month trial almost daily, and said she had trouble maintaining her composure as Samuels branded her murdered brother a wife-beater, a drunk and a child molester.
"I'm delighted," at the death sentence, Conroy said. "She gave the exact same sentence to my brother. I think it's exactly what she deserves."
Samuels' death sentence will be appealed automatically and reviewed by the state Supreme Court. Among the issues that probably will be raised is the dismissal Wednesday of a juror after she wrote to the judge, saying she was unsure she could vote for a death penalty. The defense is expected to raise the possibility that the woman was pressured by other jurors into asking to be excused. She was replaced by an alternate.
Defense attorney Josh Groshan said he found the death verdict grossly excessive.
Some jurors expressed amazement at testimony that Samuels could openly solicit--and find--willing killers in the same San Fernando Valley bars and restaurants they frequent.
"Whenever someone turned her down, she'd just go to someone else," Catran-Whitney said.
Some jurors said they found it offensive that Samuels summoned her ailing, elderly parents to the courtroom to beg for her life, even though she rarely visited them and never told them her husband had left her a large estate.
And they laughed at a defense attorney's description of the murder plots as a midlife crisis for Samuels.
"You'd better look out, then. There's a whole lot of us who could go ape at any time," juror Karen Hudson joked.