Friend says Pharis led active lifestyle as defense challenges SMPD’s confession tactics

Jurors in the Marilyn Pharis murder trial heard from Pharis’ friend Linda Lee on Wednesday, one of the last people to see her before she died, and a Santa Maria Police sergeant who interrogated defendant Victor Martinez after he allegedly attacked Pharis on July 24, 2015.

Martinez is on trial for the special circumstance murder of Pharis, 64, who worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base as a satellite tracker. Pharis suffered severe bruising and broken eye sockets in the attack, and eventually died Aug. 1, 2015, due to blood clots forming in her leg while she was bedridden.

Lee, who was Pharis’ close friend of 40 years and a co-worker, told jurors that Pharis was very active, and did a lot of physically demanding tasks at work, shedding doubt on the defense premise that Pharis’ sedentary lifestyle was responsible for health complications prior to her death.

In fact, Lee said, “If there was a nasty job to do, Marilyn was the one who helped people do it. She wasn’t a shirker.”

Pharis also often took walks around the base with her co-workers, and she never had difficulty doing so, Lee recalled. 

Lee testified that during her visits after Pharis was hospitalized there were two times Pharis complained to her of significant leg pain, but it wasn’t until the second time a nurse was informed of it, who then put Pharis on blood thinners.

“It was very violent,” Lee testified, tearing up. “The nurse called out, ‘Marilyn! Marilyn!’ but she didn’t answer because she was having a seizure.”

The staff later called Lee to inform her that Pharis had died. 

Also Wednesday, Santa Maria Police Sgt. Michael Huffman resumed testifying about his three-hour interview with Martinez on July 24, and defense attorney Lori Pedego raised concerns about some of the interrogation tactics used to obtain a confession from her client, including his statement, “I hit her in the face with [a] hammer.”

Under Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen’s questioning, Huffman first explained that Martinez told him “various things throughout the interview” about what he did with the hammer.

“He first told me he didn’t hit [Pharis], then later said he hit her one time with a hammer, then said he couldn’t remember how many times he hit her, but it was more than once,” Huffman testified. 

He continued: “I told him [Pharis] received numerous injuries with the result of being hit with a hammer, told him he was responsible, and he said, ‘Yeah, I was scared because she saw me.'”

Martinez then physically demonstrated for Huffman how he straddled Pharis as he was choking and hitting her. When Pharis fought back, “That’s when he’d let go of her neck, and hit her more,” Huffman testified. 

Pedego challenged Huffman’s techniques, pointing out that throughout the interview he was feeding Martinez details about Pharis’ injuries that Huffman himself didn’t know about. 

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The goal is “for him to be truthful,” testified Huffman, who also noted that Martinez was “all over the place” during the interview, was rambling and couldn’t stick to telling the chronological sequence of events, which made it difficult to ask follow up questions.

Pedego pointed out that Huffman used the same technique to get answers out of Martinez when questioning him about sexually assaulting Pharis, noting that Martinez repeatedly denied raping or touching Pharis sexually.

She noted that Huffman and Martinez interrupted each other numerous times, and that Huffman never clarified exactly what Martinez meant when he said he touched Pharis twice, leaving the possibility of a false confession.

Looking at the context, “Did it seem like he’s making statements that aren’t in response to the question you posed previously?” Pedego asked. Huffman said it did a few times. 

Under questioning from Bramsen, Huffman testified that Martinez initially blamed former co-defendant Jose Villagomez for all of Pharis’ injuries, but that “his answers changed” when he was told that there would be incriminating evidence found at her home.

“He later admitted touching [Pharis’] vagina, so I wanted to confront him and see if it was accurate or not,” Huffman said.

The prosecution’s final witness begins testimony Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. 

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210


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