NJ court says no in 'Blind Faith' case

July 30, 2002 at 1:36 PM
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TRENTON, N.J., July 30 (UPI) -- The New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday once again rejected a bid by "Blind Faith" killer Robert Marshall to reverse his death sentence for the 1984 murder-for-hire of his wife, Maria.

Both opponents and supporters of the death penalty say that Marshall could be executed by the end of the year, becoming the first person to die by lethal injection under the state's 1982 capital punishment law.

In another case, the court reversed the death sentence given Leslie Ann Nelson, formerly Glenn Nelson, who pleaded guilty to killing two police officers during a 1995 shootout at the home she shared with her parents. The justices, who vacated Nelson's first death sentence several years ago, returned the case to Camden County for a third penalty phase.

Marshall has been on death row since his 1986 trial. In 1990, he became the first death-sentenced inmate to lose an appeal to the state Supreme Court, and both state and federal courts have continued to reject his claims that his sentencing was unfair. In Tuesday's opinion, five justices agreed that Marshall's claim that jurors were not properly instructed on whether they had to be unanimous on mitigating factors had already been rejected in a previous appeal for post-conviction relief. They said that the current motion was time-barred by New Jersey rules that set a deadline of five years after sentencing. One justice did not participate, while Justice Virginia Long, the court's most consistent foe of the death penalty, dissented.

Maria Marshall was shot to death in a picnic area on the Garden State Parkway as she and her husband returned to their home in Toms River. While Marshall told police he and his wife had been attacked by robbers who knocked him unconscious, investigators became suspicious of his story because details did not match evidence found at the scene. They also learned that Marshall, an insurance agent, had taken out $1.4 million in coverage on his wife and that he was having an affair. The killing became the subject of a book, "Blind Faith," by Joe McGinniss, and a television movie of the same name starring the late Robert Urich as Marshall.

Marshall, who has consistently maintained his innocence, recently wrote a book of his own about life on death row, describing events like the murder of outlaw biker Robert "Mudman" Simon, who was beaten to death by another inmate.

Only five justices in the seven-member court participated in the Nelson decision, with the two former state attorneys general on the court recusing themselves. All five agreed that the verdict form given the jury was ambiguous enough to justify a reversal, especially since the jury's responses on the form showed confusion. A majority of three justices also agreed that statements made by the prosecutor in closing arguments denigrating a defense expert as a "partisan" with an "agenda" exceeded the permissible boundaries of "forceful argument."

Two of the three also said that in Nelson's case the death penalty would be cruel and unusual punishment because of a history of severe mental illness going back to childhood and existing both before and after she underwent a sex-change operation.

Nelson surrendered after an overnight standoff in Haddon Heights, a South Jersey suburb of Philadelphia. The siege began when Camden County Investigator Richard McLaughlin and Haddon Heights Detective Richard Norcross came to the house with a warrant to search Nelson's bedroom for a gun. She opened fire on them, killing McLaughlin and wounding Norcross. Some minutes later, she fired at police officers outside the house, killing Officer John Norcross, the detective's brother.

In their first ruling on the case, the court ruled that defense lawyers should have been told that Detective Norcross had filed suit against the county and Haddon Heights, claiming that police officers were not trained to handle situations involving the mentally ill.

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