A jury of 12 Spokane County residents is set to begin deliberations this morning in the case of a grisly double homicide that both the prosecution and defense describe as a senseless killing by a 22-year-old man with a history of violent behavior.
But were the deaths of 20-year-old Tanner E. Pehl and 18-year-old Sarah A. Clark malicious murders committed by a sociopath intent on becoming infamous for the grisly crimes?
Or were they caused by a rare alcohol disorder that afflicted a happy young man hanging out with two of his only friends in a new city?
Jurors on Monday heard closing arguments in the case of Justin W. Crenshaw, which began Feb. 28, 2008, when Crenshaw stabbed Clark and Pehl to death in Pehl’s home at 512 E. Elm Road, then set the house on fire.
Defense lawyer Chris Bugbee called two witnesses during the two-week trial as he argued that Crenshaw suffers from pathological intoxication, or alcohol idiosyncratic intoxication, a rare disorder that causes bizarre and sometimes violent behavior.
“Is he just somebody who, on the happiest day of his life, just decided in a very horrendous and gruesome fashion to kill two of the only people he could consider friends in Spokane, Washington?” Bugbee said. “Or does it make sense that his brain was overcome with this condition?”
Bugbee asked jurors to convict his client of first-degree manslaughter, saying Crenshaw acted recklessly when he drank alcohol despite knowing about his problem.
“He knew that when he drank alcohol, it put other lives at risk,” Bugbee said.
But Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll asked jurors to convict Crenshaw of aggravated first-degree murder, noting Crenshaw chose to grab a knife from the kitchen before stabbing Clark 26 times in a bedroom.
Her body was then posed next to the bed with a Samurai sword resting on her nearly severed head. Pehl’s body was found in the hallway just outside the bedroom with multiple stab wounds and a broadsword plunged through his abdomen and into his spine. Spokane County sheriff’s detectives said the sword was thrust into Pehl’s body after he died.
“These were not just your everyday kind of murders, but something for people to notice, something for people to talk about, and something they would never forget,” Driscoll said. “… He lacks a conscience. The crime scene photos show you that.”Dr. Jerry Larsen, a psychiatrist who examined Crenshaw and specializes in alcohol disorders, said the crime scene is consistent with bizarre behavior triggered by pathological intoxication. Larsen said Crenshaw’s history of similar behavior includes a stabbing for which Crenshaw served 18 months in a juvenile detention center: His friend was stabbed in the neck as he had his back turned. Crenshaw threw the man a towel and a phone to call for help before he fled in the victim’s car, according to court testimony. But Driscoll pointed to the case as another example of Crenshaw’s anti-social behavior: The attack came after the victim refused to drive Crenshaw to buy methamphetamine. “He has no conscience,” Driscoll said. “He doesn’t care if he stabs his friend.”
When offering a motive for the slayings of Clark and Pehl, Driscoll pointed to phrases and symbols found on a belt with the bloody clothes Crenshaw wore during the slayings: “infamous,” “trust no one,” knives and broken hearts.
Crenshaw’s sister, who introduced him to Clark after he traveled to Spokane from Las Vegas about two weeks before the slayings, had earlier testified that her brother told her he trusted no one, and that “I’m only here for myself.”
“He likes knives. He wants to be infamous,” Driscoll said. “… And he certainly left behind nothing but broken hearts.”
While Bugbee said Crenshaw was interested in seeing other women, Driscoll said Crenshaw may have killed Clark because he was angry she wasn’t interested in him.
One woman testified that she’d offered Crenshaw and Clark a condom, but “Sarah just laughed, and the defendant didn’t appear to be very happy about it,” Driscoll said Monday.
“Perhaps Mr. Crenshaw wanted to have sex with Sarah Clark, she wasn’t interested, so he went and got a knife and came back,” Driscoll said. Pehl went to the room to investigate Clark’s screams but was overpowered by Crenshaw, Driscoll said.
“It’s not a whodunit,” Driscoll said. “It’s a trail of blood leading all the way to Justin Crenshaw.”
Driscoll ended by playing a 911 call Crenshaw made a few hours after the bodies were found. Crenshaw told the dispatcher he had “a couple beers” with Pehl but left about 12:15 a.m.
“He’s setting up his alibi right away,” Driscoll said.
Crenshaw also lied to investigators and said he never owned a pair of black Nikes later recovered with his bloody clothes.
“He simply spun tale after tale after tale because he knows exactly what he did,” Driscoll said.
Bugbee acknowledged his client lied to investigators after he awoke and saw Pehl’s body, then panicked.
“He turned and he saw the body of Tanner Pehl. He doesn’t remember anything else,” Bugbee said. “He remembers smelling some smoke, and he remembers at some point driving in Sarah Clark’s car.”
When he was sober “he knew what he’d done because of what happened in Nevada,” Bugbee said, referring to a previous stabbing for which Crenshaw served 18 months in a juvenile detention center.
“He didn’t know what to do. … He lied about stuff that might have helped him.”