Supreme Court upholds death penalty for Tahoe killer
A man who murdered two women and sexually assaulted two girls in a South Lake Tahoe trailer park in 1987 moved one step closer to death July 3 when California’s Supreme Court voted 5 to 2 to uphold his death sentence.
Herbert James Coddington, a professional gambler, murdered Maybelle Martin, the 69-year-old owner of a Reno modeling agency, and her friend, Dorothy Walsh, 73, and sexually assaulted a 12- and 14-year-old girl in his rented trailer at Tahoe Verde Mobile Home Park.
All California death sentence cases are appealed to the State Supreme Court. Coddington’s case has been making its way through the appellate process since his conviction in 1988. The appeals process remains ongoing and the case may end up in federal court, lawyers said.
One of the main issues involved in the trial was if Coddington was sane when he murdered the women.
Associate Justice Stanley Moss wrote the State Supreme Court’s dissenting opinion published July 5.
“The issue of sanity in this case was one of the most complex and intensive of any that I have ever seen,” he wrote. “It was also one of the most vigorously litigated. The reporter’s transcript of the oral proceedings on sanity fills almost 1,700 pages.”
Justice J. Kennard issued the other dissenting vote, but five other justices agreed with the El Dorado County jury, which decided Coddington was sane when he murdered the two women.
“I’m pleased the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for this case,” said El Dorado County District Attorney Gary Lacy. “The controversy between mental health experts obviously was the most pivotal issue of the entire trial. Psychiatry and psychiatrists are more of the arts than of science and are so imprecise. I don’t think there’s anyone that could make that determination. Ultimately I think the jury was an intelligent group of people and I think they were able to make up their own minds.”
Richard Meyer, Coddington’s trial defense attorney, said he is against the death penalty in all cases.
“I’m disappointed with the court’s affirmation of the death sentence,” he said. “It’s not because Coddington and others like him don’t deserve to be put to death. We must protect society from dangerous people like Coddington by putting them in prison forever without even considering parole. But I think that taking the next step and killing them is nothing more than the state-sanctioned revenge. And though it is justified, ultimately it diminishes us as a society.”
On May 16, 1987, Coddington, then 29, met the two women and two girls at a Stateline casino and led them to his trailer in South Lake Tahoe. He lured them there by telling the girls and their older chaperones that they would be in an anti-drug commercial he planned to make.
Once inside his trailer, which he told his victims was a photography studio, Coddington blindfolded and gagged all four. He strangled Martin and Walsh by cinching strips of ridged plastic around their necks and then put their bodies in garbage bags and left them in one of his bedrooms.
The two girls were put in a sound-proof plywood cage he had constructed inside another bedroom. Coddington sexually assaulted them over a period of three days.
The FBI raided the trailer on the third day. They were tipped off by a 16-year-old model who had at one point planned to join the other girls on the video shoot. She notified police that the group had not returned from their modeling job in South Lake Tahoe. The 16-year-old was also able to help the FBI trace Coddington’s car and that led the FBI to his trailer.
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