Were Brent Marsh’s crimes so grievous that, instead of the 12-year jail sentence he received, he should have gone to prison for life?
Marsh’s defense attorney’s answer is, of course, no, because McCracken “Ken” Poston firmly believes every American deserves a right to a fair trial — even someone who admitted to grossly disrespecting social conventions by not properly disposing of more than 300 of corpses.
“People were done wrong, there’s no question about that,” Poston said.
What the attorney did question was an extremely harsh sentence his client initially faced. Poston said he believes in reasonable sentencing, adding that sentencing reform is still sorely needed.
Poston said most Americans generally believe in fair and just punishment in the abstract.
“But when you get an emotional case it really tests people’s convictions,” he said. “For me it was a test of endurance.”
The Ringgold lawyer and former state legislator defended Marsh, the operator of Tri-State Crematory in Noble. Marsh was arrested in 2002 and initially charged with 787 counts, including burial service related fraud and theft by taking. The former crematory manager, who previously had no criminal record, then faced a potential jail sentence of more than 8,000 years.
Poston filed an appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court questioning whether a corpse could be considered someone’s property. This was a “strategic win” for the defense, he said, because it “got the state to come down to a more reasonable place” in regards to sentencing.
A plea bargain was reached and Marsh was given a 12-year sentence. He has been incarcerated for eight years. Marsh has not yet come up for parole, according to Poston. When Marsh is released, he will be on probation “the rest of his life,” Poston said. Poston pointed out that Marsh is serving a longer sentence than what some violent offenders receive.
“At some point Brent’s offenses became political fodder,” he said, in reference to state and local officials’ public and passionate condemnation of his client.
Poston said his client appeared to “be in a fog” in the early days of the case. Marsh could not explain why he did not perform hundreds of cremations yet had successfully cremated two-thirds of the bodies he received for cremation, Poston said. Marsh also never took more than $250 from the funeral homes for each body sent to him for cremation, the lawyer said. Funeral homes generally charge three times that amount to perform cremations, according to Poston. This shows his client was not motivated by money, he reasoned.
Was mercury poisoning to blame?
During the litigation process, Poston began to develop an environmental theory that might have explained his client’s bizarre actions: exposure to mercury coming from the teeth fillings in the deceased. Marsh had told authorities the retort, or cremation oven, did not work properly.
Poston said Marsh’s wife told him her husband had suffered severe insomnia, which is a symptom of mercury contamination. In addition, Marsh’s ailing father, Ray Marsh, suffered health issues consistent with mercury poisoning, according to Poston.
The elder Marsh founded Tri-State Crematory in the mid-1970s and performed thousands of cremations during the years he operated the crematory. Ray Marsh suffered strokes and Parkinson’s-like symptoms, according to news reports. Poston said Brent Marsh returned home from college to take over the business from his sick father.
Poston said he had Marsh tested for neurological toxins but the tests were inconclusive.
“Mercury leaches out of you,” he said. “You get back to normal once you’re away from the environment causing it.”
Poston said the crematory’s broken retort was the likely culprit for what he theorized was mercury poisoning. He said Marsh worked in a small crematory building with inadequate ventilation and a comprised stovepipe that could have leaked mercury into the interior of the building.
The lawyer said a professor at the University of Kentucky validated his theory.
Poston said he publicly shared his mercury poisoning theory five years ago, to try to answer families’ questions of why Marsh did not cremate the bodies of their loved ones.
Poston pointed out Marsh did not abuse or mutilate the non-cremated bodies.
“There was nothing untoward done to the bodies other than not cremating them and storing them en masse,” he said.
Before he could present his theory of mercury poisoning in court the case was settled in 2004, at Marsh’s request, according to Poston.
“Brent told me, ‘Put an end to it,’” Poston recounted. Marsh had wanted to spare his family further trauma, the lawyer said. Marsh’s parents, Ray and Clara Marsh, had been considered respected members of the Walker County community, Poston said. Ray Marsh died in 2003.
Poston said the likelihood Marsh would ever work in crematory services again and have the chance to re-offend when his jail sentence ends is “zero percent.”
Poston said some of the families hurt by his client’s actions understand this.
A story of healing
Sheila Manis, whose husband’s decomposed body was found on the crematory property in September 2002, testified at Marsh’s sentencing. Manis said she has forgiven Marsh for inflicting emotional pain on her and her family and has chosen to move on with her life.
“My husband’s body was up there for 18 months — and his arm was carried off half a mile by animals. I saw the arm with animal bites on it,” Manis recounted. She had her husband’s body cremated after it was positively identified.
“It was seven months of hell,” Manis said of the lengthy DNA identification process.
Manis said the arm was cremated separately because it was found after the majority of her husband’s remains were discovered.
“I’m dealing with it,” she said. “Life goes on. The people that were up there were dead. Brent Marsh did not kill my husband. Huntington’s disease killed my husband.”
Manis said when her husband, Ira Manis III, passed away at home with Hospice, she was handed a stack of papers to sign. One of the documents gave her funeral home permission to send her husband’s body to Tri-State Crematory for cremation.
“The paper looked like a bank loan,” Manis recalled. Following the Tri-State case, her funeral home was the target of a civil lawsuit. During a deposition taken by the funeral home’s attorneys she was asked why she did not “read all the fine print” on the cremation order.
“They were trying to make it my fault,” she said. “If I blame anyone I blame my funeral home, not Brent Marsh.”
Manis said in the beginning she was angry with Marsh and clashed with Poston.
“He was cocky and bullheaded,” she said of Poston.
Her perspective changed after she attended Marsh’s criminal proceedings, she said.
“He (Marsh) turned around and faced the courtroom,” Manis recalled. “He said he didn’t have an answer as to why he done it. I saw him and saw a little boy in a man’s body. I felt sorry for him. People were booing and spitting at him and I thought, ‘Where were these people raised?’ They were just rude.”
Manis said she and her grown son are close and claims he would do anything she asked. She believes Marsh did the same for his mother, Clara Marsh, by taking over the crematory for his father, Ray Marsh.
“I told my son I felt real sorry for (Marsh). He just didn’t want to do that (crematory) job.”
Manis said she drew the ire of many by publicly forgiving Marsh. She said she did not want him to receive a life sentence.
“I did not know there were cameras in the courtroom,” she said. “They were in the balcony; I had no idea. I was just saying what I felt. By the time I got home there was a satellite truck in front of my house. I left town for a week.”
Manis said her late husband inspired her to be strong. She said she has chosen to remember him for the way he lived, not to focus on what happened to his remains after he died.
“He lived more in 43 years than some people do in a lifetime,” Manis said. “He accomplished a lot. I’m not going to let Tri-State Crematory and what happened up there overshadow what he had achieved in his lifetime. He came from very humble beginnings. And he worked two jobs and I worked to put him through college so he could be somebody and achieve what he wanted to achieve. He was so eager to learn and climb up that ladder. He did it in such a short time. He taught all of us you cherish every day — and he did. He honestly lived every day like it was his last.”