Robert O. Marshall, a life insurance salesman whose conviction and almost 30-year imprisonment for the contract killing of his wife inspired the Joe McGinniss book “Blind Faith” and a television movie of the same name, died in prison on Saturday in Bridgeton, N.J., while awaiting a parole hearing. He was 75.
Matt Schuman, a spokesman for the State Department of Corrections, said Mr. Marshall died of natural causes at South Woods State Prison. In his applications for early release, Mr. Marshall said he had diabetes, hypertension and dementia.
Mr. Marshall, who had a mistress at the time, was convicted of hiring men to kill his wife, Maria, 42, in 1984 at a rest stop along the Garden State Parkway. He was sentenced to be executed.
In a trial that drew wide attention, prosecutors said Mr. Marshall, a prominent insurance broker in Toms River, N.J., had intended to use more than $1.25 million in life insurance proceeds to pay off $300,000 in personal debts.
He spent 18 years on death row until a federal court ruled in 2004 that he had been inadequately represented by counsel during his sentencing. He was resentenced to life imprisonment in 2006.
Mr. Marshall became eligible for parole in December, after having served the minimum 30 years. His two older sons are believed to have testified against his release during a closed victim-impact hearing this month, according to James T. Plousis, the parole board chairman. A two-member panel of the board had referred the case to the full board for a hearing on March 18.
When resentenced, Mr. Marshall, speaking of his wife, admitted to “terrible mistakes” and said he accepted “full responsibility that my actions led to her death.” But he never specifically acknowledged hiring anyone to kill her.
Among the prosecution witnesses was his 44-year-old mistress, who testified that Mr. Marshall, then 46, had told her 10 months before the murder, “I swear, if there was a way that I could either do away with or get rid of her, I would.”
At the trial, when Mr. Marshall professed his innocence and his love for his wife, the prosecutor demanded, “Then can you explain to me, sir, why her ashes are still in a brown cardboard box in a desk drawer at the funeral home?”
Mr. Marshall is survived by his sons, Roby, Christopher and John. They had originally expressed “blind faith” in their father and relief when the death penalty was rescinded, but they were divided over his guilt. Only John, the youngest, who was 13 when his mother was killed, was unconvinced.
“There is this ‘vindictive happiness’ that he’s gone now,” Christopher Marshall told The Associated Press this week. “He’s no longer a drain on anyone.”
Robert Oakley Marshall was born in Queens on Dec. 16, 1939, to Howard Marshall, a sporting goods salesman, and the former Oakleigh Valentine Weeks. After the family moved to Pennsylvania, Robert met Maria Puszynski, the daughter of a doctor, at a high school party, where he was playing the drums in a band.
They dated as teenagers and married after Mr. Marshall graduated from Villanova University in 1963, settling in Toms River.
In “Blind Faith,” Mr. McGinniss, the author of “Fatal Vision” and other books, wrote, “If he viewed you as a prospect (and unless you’d just had your second coronary or were suffering from an obvious malignancy, Rob Marshall viewed you as a prospect), he’d come at you with all the social grace of a wolverine.”
By Mr. Marshall’s account, he and his wife were returning from a weekly outing to Atlantic City at 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 7, 1984, when he stopped at a secluded picnic area off the Garden State Parkway to check a squishy tire. He said he was knocked unconscious by robbers who had followed the couple from the casino. When he recovered, he said, $2,000 in winnings was missing from his pants pocket and his wife was lying dead in the front seat with two gunshot wounds.
Mr. Marshall was accused of promising to pay two Louisiana men $65,000 to kill his wife. One of the men testified for the prosecution and was charged only with conspiracy. The other was charged with murder but acquitted, creating a mystery as to who actually committed the crime. Last year, though, while imprisoned in another case, the second man confessed to the murder.
In an interview, Mr. McGinniss, who died last year and who had followed the trial in the courtroom, said the case resonated as “the ‘Peyton Place’ of the ’80s, except that this time it’s true. Greed, sex, violence — the all-American values.”
He added: “The Marshalls personified the good life in Toms River. A common feeling in town was this: ‘I hope that in 10 years we can be what they have become.’ ”