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Death sentence possible for Carneh

A year ago last Saturday, police found the bodies of Richard and Leola Larson, their grandson Taelor Marks and his girlfriend Josie Peterson in the Larsons’ Des Moines home.

All four were brutally murdered — shot point-blank, bludgeoned and stabbed — during the night of March 8, 2001.

Four days later, police arrested 19-year-old Leemah Carneh at his parents’ home in Pierce County on suspicion of murdering the Larsons, Marks and Peterson.

Later this month, and more than a year after the quadruple homicide, King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng will decide whether to seek the death penalty.

Carneh’s next hearing is scheduled for March 22, during which the prosecutor’s office will file a notice if Maleng opts for capital punishment.

Maleng is the sole person responsible for making that decision, said spokesman Dan Donohoe.

Carneh’s defense attorneys, Louis Frantz and Carl Luer, have presented mitigating evidence to the prosecutor’s office, which Maleng will weigh against the seriousness of the crime.

Frantz said the defense team’s primary arguments against the death penalty are Carneh’s mental illness and the circumstances surrounding his life as a child in Liberia, from where Carneh and some of his family members fled during a civil war.

“There are others, but those are the most compelling,” Frantz said.

A King County Superior Court judge found Carneh incompetent to stand trial last year because of mental illness and ordered him into three months of treatment at Western State Hospital. The judge ruled him competent last February.

If the prosecution seeks the death penalty, Carneh will have one jury trial to determine his guilt or innocence. If the jury finds him guilty, another trial will follow with the same jury to determine the punishment.

Factors for leniency a jury can consider in death penalty trials include:

• Whether the defendant has a criminal history.

• If the crime was committed while the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental disturbance.

• Whether the defendant was an accomplice and played a relatively minor role.

• If the defendant acted under the duress or domination of another person.

• Whether at the time of the murder the capacity of the defendant to appreciate the wrongness of his or her conduct was substantially impaired as a result of mental disease.

• If the defendant’s age calls for leniency.

• Whether there is a likelihood the defendant would pose a danger to others in the future.

State law prohibits outright the death penalty for those who are mentally retarded, defined as an intelligence quotient of 70 or below and a deficit in the degree to which a person can be independent and take on social responsibilities expected for his or her age.

James Elledge, 58, was the last man to be executed in Washington. He died by lethal injection last August.

Elledge was convicted in October 1998 of aggravated first-degree murder for kidnapping, strangling and stabbing Eloise Fitzner at a church in Lynnwood where he worked as a janitor.

The state has executed 76 people since 1904. There are nine men now on death row. The sentences or convictions of six others have been reversed or they are awaiting a retrial.

If Maleng seeks the death penalty for Carneh after reviewing the defense’s evidence, Frantz said the defense team will prepare for the trial and work on arguments to convince the jury that Carneh should not receive the death penalty.

According to police, sometime in the evening of March 8, 2001, the Larsons (he was 63, she was 64) were shot in the head at near point-blank range while they were lying on their living room floor. The murderer pulled their bodies from the living room into their bedroom to conceal them from view.

It appears the killer then waited for Marks, 17, and Peterson, 17, to arrive.

Marks was shot in the back, beat in the head and stabbed several times in the neck. Peterson was beat in the head and stabbed several times in the neck, but she was not shot.

During the investigation, Des Moines Police detectives discovered some items were missing from the Larsons’ home, including jewelry, televisions and video equipment and Marks’ car — a 1978 Monte Carlo with Dayton rims.

On March 9, Carneh sold Marks’ Monte Carlo to a friend’s brother in Kent for $300, but he removed the stereo system.

Detectives found the car at a Kent apartment complex later that day. By March 10, they found Carneh’s friend and his friend’s brother, who told detectives where they got the car and where Carneh was living. Early in the morning on March 12, detectives served a search warrant at the Pierce County address and took Carneh into custody. During a search of the home, they found luggage belonging to the Larsons, blood-spattered clothing and a .357 handgun, according to authorities.

They also found a ring Peterson had given Marks for Christmas, an identification card belonging to Marks and the stereo system from the Monte Carlo, authorities said.

Detectives said Carneh apparently was obsessed with Peterson, who was an honors student and a cheerleader.

Carneh was charged in King County Superior Court with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder and held without bail.

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and ejahn@fedwaymirror.com.

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