Mary Ellen Samuels, portrayed during her murder trial as a cold, calculating “green widow,” who orchestrated two murders for money, on Friday became the fifth woman to be sentenced to death in California since the state resumed imposing capital punishment.
Ten members of the jury that in July had recommended Samuels’ execution packed the courtroom’s front rows as Superior Court Judge Michael R. Hoff formally sentenced her to die for orchestrating the murders of her husband and the hit man she hired to arrange her husband’s killing.
Later, outside the courtroom, several jurors said the judge had validated their decision that Samuels, a 47-year-old grandmother, deserved to be executed for her crimes.
“We wanted to let people know we were sure,” said juror Karen Hudson, explaining the jurors’ presence.
As in all capital cases, the Samuels verdict will be reviewed automatically by the state Supreme Court, a process that could take at least two years.
All five women sentenced to death are from Southern California, three of them from the San Fernando Valley.
Samuels was convicted July 1 of multiple counts of murder with the special circumstances of soliciting murder and conspiracy to murder.
According to testimony, she first hired a reputed drug dealer to murder her 40-year-old husband, Robert Samuels, a motion picture camera assistant who had decided to divorce her after a three-year marital separation and several unsuccessful reconciliation attempts. He was bludgeoned and shot to death in his Northridge home in December, 1988.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Janice Maurizi had argued that Samuels plotted to kill her husband for two years, after realizing he was “worth more to her dead than alive.” Samuels would have received a $30,000 settlement in the divorce, the prosecutor said, but as a widow she inherited $500,000 in real estate, business and insurance proceeds.
Samuels also was found guilty of funneling $5,000 to two other men to kill the original contract killer, 27-year-old James Bernstein, to prevent him from cooperating with police. Bernstein, who was engaged to marry Samuels’ daughter Nicole, was strangled in June, 1989.
During the year between her husband’s death and her arrest, Samuels inherited and spent more than $500,000 on a Porsche, a Cancun condominium, vacations, fur coats, rented limousines, nightclub hopping and custom outfits from a trendy Melrose store called Trashy Lingerie.
Her lavish spending habits inspired police and prosecutors to dub Samuels “the green widow.”
The trial also included testimony about lurid love letters, male strippers, mother-daughter cheesecake photos, cocaine sniffing, botched murder schemes and a talking parrot that cursed the police.
Among the most eye-catching evidence: a photograph taken of Samuels by a lover within months of the murders, showing her on a hotel bed, nude and smiling, her body covered with about $20,000 in $100 bills.