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Defense to claim rare disorder

Sun., July 11, 2010

The attorney representing Justin W. Crenshaw will be allowed to present a defense that essentially says he couldn’t have planned to kill two people because of a rare psychological disorder that presents itself only after drinking alcohol.

Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen on Friday denied a request by Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll seeking to exclude testimony from a defense expert who said he believes Crenshaw may suffer from a rare condition called “alcohol idiosyncratic intoxication.”

Under that condition, some people after consuming only a small amount of alcohol can become violent and lose memory of events, according to Dr. Gerry Larsen, who plans to testify for defense attorney Chris Bugbee.

“This is a very interesting issue,” Eitzen said. “The court has to be extremely careful, particularly in a case of this magnitude, to allow the defense to present their theory of the case.”

The trial begins Monday. Crenshaw faces two counts of aggravated first-degree murder for the slayings of Sarah A. Clark, 18, and Tanner E. Pehl, 20. Their bodies were found Feb. 28, 2008, in a burning house at 512 E. Elm St.

A firefighter found Pehl covered by a blanket with a sword sticking out of his chest, according to court records. In another room, investigators found Clark, whose head had nearly been severed. Both victims had multiple stab wounds, including several that came after death.

The investigation quickly centered on Crenshaw, who had recently moved to the area from Las Vegas. He met Clark through his sister and Pehl through his job at a local restaurant.

A bloody fingerprint linked Crenshaw to the crime scene, police said. He told investigators that he drank with Clark and Pehl that night, but he had them drive him to a friend’s house where he spent the night, according to court documents.

But they charged him with the crimes within a couple days and in April 2008 his aunt told authorities that she discovered a plastic bucket in her garage containing what appeared to be Crenshaw’s bloody clothing.

Bugbee said he plans to present a defense of diminished capacity, meaning Crenshaw wasn’t mentally capable of planning the killings.

On Friday, Bugbee called on Larsen to explain the alcohol idiosyncratic intoxication theory.

“This is a rare condition,” Bugbee said.

Larsen testified that he has spent a career as a psychiatrist treating patients with alcohol-related problems, but only about 50 who suffered from the rare condition.

“The behavior sometimes becomes violent with memory loss,” he said.

He estimated that it affects about one or two people out of 5,000.

Crenshaw told Larsen about how he stabbed a friend in a previous incident in Las Vegas after he started drinking.

“He can offer no explanation or memory for doing such a thing,” Larsen said.

But Driscoll, the prosecutor, then called Dr. William Grant, a forensic psychologist from Eastern State Hospital. Grant said many of his colleagues don’t recognize alcohol idiosyncratic intoxication as a viable diagnosis.

“I have never seen a case,” Grant said. “It was a term used once, but the validity has not been established.”

But when pressed by Eitzen, Grant said he would “maybe say there is a condition” if the person had a valid history of destructive behavior following drinking small amounts of alcohol.

“The defense is entitled to present their theory,” Eitzen said. “Dr. Larsen can testify that this is a theory and it might have applied in this case. It is the job of the jury to decide if that is credible or not.”

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