Tuesday, June 28, 2005
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Valley Woman
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence for a San Fernando Valley woman in the murders of her husband and the man who allegedly helped her hire the actual killer.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown, writing for the court, said Mary Ellen Samuels received a fair trial for the murders of Robert Samuels and James Bernstein. Even if Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Hoff committed evidentiary or instructional errors. Brown wrote, they were harmless because the evidence “overwhelmingly linked defendant to the murders of Robert Samuels and James Bernstein.”
Mary Ellen Samuels, the justice said, killed her husband for money, including $240,000 in insurance proceeds, $70,000 from the Subway sandwich shop that they continued to co-own, even though they had been in divorce proceedings for 26 months before Robert Samuels was killed, and $160,000 as a result of refinancing the family home.
Police and prosecutors called Samuels the “green widow” after she spent virtually all of that money in less than a year. A photograph introduced in evidence, taken by a male companion sometime after the killings, showed Samuels in bed covered with nothing but currency.
Jurors found her guilty of two counts each of murder, solicitation, and conspiracy, with special circumstances of multiple murder and killing for financial gain.
Robert Samuels 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, according to testimony. Seven months later, he was dead-strangled, beaten and dumped along the highway in an isolated Ventura County canyon.
Evidence regarding the lavish spending was properly admitted, Brown said, as was testimony by Elizabeth Kaufman, who represented Robert Samuels in the family law action, that Robert Samuels was having financial difficulties and was trying to reduce his support payments.
The testimony helped establish the motive for the murder, Brown said.
Brown also said Hoff did not abuse his discretion in dismissing a juror, identified only as Audrey W., after she wrote to the judge, saying she was unsure she could vote for a death penalty, and was questioned by the judge about her beliefs.
“[T]he record reflects that Audrey W. was distressed and volunteered to the court that she could not follow her oath and instructions to consider imposition of the death penalty in this case,” the justice said. “She also admitted she lacked ‘courage’ to impose the ultimate punishment if appropriate under all the circumstances, and that she feared she ‘couldn’t act; on her obligation to do so. Therefore, after a meaningful inquiry, the trial court credited Audrey W.’s expressions of her state of mind and determined there was a demonstrable reality that she was unable to perform as a juror. We defer to this finding and the underlying record. “
The case is People v. Samuels, 05 S.O.S. 3129.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company