Albion Monitor /News

San Quentin Investigating Odd Death of Psychotic Spared Execution

by Michael Kroll

short item on this incident
(PNS) SAN FRANCISCO -- On February 27, 1997, the California Supreme Court unanimously reversed Sammy Marshall's death sentence. But last month, not far from his cell on San Quentin's death row, Sammy Marshall died anyway.

He was being held in the prison's Adjustment Center. Sammy Marshall had a lot of adjustment to do -- the day after he arrived at San Quentin in November 1988, for the murder of a Los Angeles prostitute, Marshall had been diagnosed by prison psychologists as "actively psychotic."

Day after day, he sat in his cell, rocking back and forth on his stainless steel bed. He confided to fellow convicts that the prison staff was out to get him, that they were poisoning his food, and that his lawyers were conspiring with prison officials. A second and third evaluation reached the same conclusion: "His condition is chronic and additional observation is needed to clarify his capacity to understand the nature of the death sentence."

While being tried for murder, Sammy Marshall was held in Los Angeles County jail, where he was placed in restraints to prevent him from hurting himself. He heard voices telling him to die; he described seeing a man on the ceiling urging him to die. Marshall lit a fire in his cell. He claimed that someone had put a gun in his property. Jail officials put him on anti-psychotic drugs.

Three psychiatrists who examined Sammy Marshall, including one hired by the prosecution, concluded that he was not competent to stand trial. But the judge in the case ruled him competent.

He was represented by Long Beach lawyer Ron Slick. (With eight clients on death row, Slick has more clients condemned to death than any defense counsel in California.)

Slick never told the jury that another man, barefoot and disheveled, had been seen leaving the warehouse just before the victim was discovered there. Slick never told the jury that, although the victim had semen in her vagina, it did not match Sammy Marshall's DNA. Slick never told the jury his client was being dosed daily with potent anti-psychotic drugs because of his bizarre behavior. Slick rested his case without presenting a single witness.

The jury found Marshall guilty of murder. Before being sentenced to death, Sammy Marshall told a probation officer that he was receiving "40 pounds of radiation" a day, that there was a conspiracy against him, and that he knew famous people, like the governor and the president.

In February of this year, the California Supreme Court unanimously reversed his death sentence (the second time in five years the court found grounds to reverse a death sentence on direct appeal. The court affirmed 84 death sentences in that same period). But nobody gave Sammy Marshall the news. His lawyers' letters were returned unopened. Their attempts to see him were rebuffed. Day after day, until June 15th -- the day that he died -- he rocked on his bed, talking unintelligibly, fearing for his life.

On the morning of his death, several guards came to his cell and demanded that Sammy Marshall come out. When he refused -- screaming "please, please don't kill me" -- they used pepper spray to subdue him before performing an "Extraction" -- going into his cell and physically removing him.

According to a prisoner eyewitness, the officers pepper-sprayed him a second time before they "unlocked Marshall's cell and charged into it like a train ... I heard a banging sound that I assumed was Sammy's head hitting the wall. I watched them carry him out, and he looked dead."

According to a prison spokesperson, Lt. Joy McFarlane, there was no indication of wrongdoing by any correctional officer. But Sammy Marshall, aged 51 years, the man who survived the death sentence, was dead.

Michael Kroll is an associate editor for Pacific News Service specializing in criminal justice issues

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Albion Monitor July 16, 1997 (

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