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 since California resumed capital punishment 17 years ago.
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 Samuels to die for orchestrating the murders of her husband and the hit man she hired to arrange the husband’s killing.
Later, outside the courtroom, several jurors said the judge had validated their decision that Samuels, a 47-year-old grandmother, deserved execution 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 by the state Supreme Court, a process that could take at least two years. An expected appellate issue is whether one of the Samuels jurors felt pressured by the others when she asked to be excused during deliberations because she was unable to vote for the death penalty. She was replaced by an alternate.
Within the next few weeks, Samuels will join two other former San Fernando Valley women who also have been convicted of killing for money and are awaiting execution at the state’s Central California Women’s Facility in the San Joaquin Valley city of Chowchilla.
Two other women on Death Row were sentenced by judges and juries in Orange and San Bernardino counties.
They are expected to be joined shortly by a sixth woman, the first from Northern California. A San Mateo County jury ruled in August that she should be sentenced to death, and a judge is scheduled to sentence her next month.
During the early stages of her case, Samuels rejected a plea bargain that would have spared her life, Deputy District Atty. Janice Maurizi said.
Neither Maurizi nor Samuels’ current defense attorneys were involved with the case at the time.
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 following a three-year marital separation and several unsuccessful reconciliation attempts. He was bludgeoned and shot to death in his Northridge home in December, 1988.
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 was suspected of arranging the murder of Robert Samuels, but not of being the actual gunman.
Authorities have never made public the identity of Robert Samuels’ alleged gunman, but Maurizi said he is believed to be dead.
Bernstein, who was engaged to marry Samuels’ daughter Nicole, was strangled in June, 1989, by Paul Edwin Gaul and Darrell Ray Edwards.
Gaul and Edwards testified for the prosecution against Samuels under plea agreements that spared them the death penalty. Both are serving sentences of 15 years to life in state prison.
During the year between her husband’s murder and her arrest, Samuels inherited and spent more than $500,000 on a Porsche, a Cancun condo, vacations, fur coats, rented limousines, nightclub hopping and custom outfits from a trendy West Hollywood 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.
“Why did she do it? For the love of money,” Susan Conroy, Robert Samuels’ younger sister, told reporters in a courthouse corridor.
Conroy, who lives in Corona, had urged Hoff to impose the death penalty upon her sister-in-law, who grew up with Conroy and her brother in Santa Ana.
Conroy said her brother, who worked on films such as “The Color Purple,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “Lethal Weapon 2,” still is “missed very much by his family, his friends and his profession.”
“He was taken away from us in such a brutal fashion, and for only one reason. Greed. She must now fact the consequences of her actions.”
Neither Samuels nor her two defense attorneys, Philip Nameth and Josh Groshan, said anything to the judge before sentencing. The defense had sought a new trial, alleging misconduct on the part of the prosecutor and some jurors, but Hoff denied that appeal Friday, immediately before passing sentence.
Samuels also declined to speak with the probation officer who prepared her sentencing report, except to make a single point:
“The defendant did wish the court to know that although she has been depicted as a ‘green widow’ who would do anything for money, she has continually refused to tell her story to the tabloids,” Deputy Probation Officer Richard A. Richardson wrote in his report.
Announcing the results of his independent review of the case, the judge declared that the jury’s guilty and death verdicts were “clearly supported by the evidence,” which he described as “overwhelming . . . extensive, vivid, graphic and most compelling.”
“It clearly demonstrated that the defendant planned the murders for a long time, and had the ability to convince others to do her dirty work. . . . The defendant involved many people, even her own teen-age daughter and her daughter’s friends.”
Recapping testimony from the penalty phase of Samuels’ trial, Hoff found scant evidence of any positive character traits to counter the gravity of her crimes.
She had a normal childhood, the judge observed, made many family trips to Disneyland, dearly loved a pet dog named Patches, taught a stepdaughter to bake cookies, and was considered a “den mother” and Bible class leader at the County Jail for women, where she has been held for the past four years.
Gloria Pina, who befriended Samuels in jail and attended the trial daily, crossed herself as Samuels was led from the courtroom by several deputies. A man, who told reporters he was a former boyfriend, strained to catch her eye, but Samuels did not acknowledge him.
Samuels’ daughter, Nicole, who defied her own lawyer’s advice and testified on her mother’s behalf during the trial, did not attend the sentencing.
Maurizi said prosecutors consider Nicole Samuels Moroianu, now 26 and the mother of a young son, to be an unindicted co-conspirator. Prosecutors still are contemplating filing charges against her in the deaths of her stepfather and fiance.
“There’s no statute of limitations for murder,” Maurizi said.
Both Samuels and her daughter denied plotting to kill anyone and claimed on the witness stand that Robert Samuels had abused them.
But several of the daughter’s high school friends testified that she had asked them at school where she could find a gun to kill her stepfather.
When she arrives in Chowchilla, Samuels will be joining a small group of women whose ranks have slowly increased during the past five years. As of Sept. 1, there were 390 inmates under sentence of death, four of them women, the state Department of Corrections says.
Maureen McDermott, a nurse convicted of killing a roommate to collect a $100,000 mortgage insurance policy, also received a death sentence from a Van Nuys jury in 1990, and was the first woman on Death Row.
Two years later, a Downtown jury sentenced West Hills widow Catherine Thompson to be executed for murdering her mechanic husband so she could collect a $400,000 insurance policy.
The others are Maria del Rosio Alfaro, an admitted drug addict who was sentenced to die by an Orange County jury for stabbing a 9-year-old girl to death during a burglary, and Cynthia Lynn Coffman, sentenced in both Orange and San Bernardino counties to die for the abduction-murders of two women during a cross-county crime spree with her tattooed biker boyfriend.
Only four women have legally been put to death by the state since 1893. But 503 men have been executed, the majority of them by hanging.
Since the capital punishment laws were revised in 1977, two men have been executed in California: Robert Alton Harris and David Edwin Mason, who was executed a year ago.
The first woman to die in California’s gas chamber was Juanita Spinelli in 1941. The most recent was Elizabeth Ann Duncan, a 59-year-old Ventura County woman convicted of hiring two men to kill her daughter-in-law. She died in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison on Aug. 8, 1962.