Life term without parole is the only punishment possible for 22-year-old
Justin Crenshaw arrived in Spokane from Las Vegas a recovering heroin addict, excited to reunite with his sister and start a new life.
Two murders and nearly 2 1/2 years later, the 22-year-old confessed killer learned his fate in a Spokane County courtroom: Life in prison, no parole.
That’s the only sentence available to Crenshaw after a jury convicted him Tuesday of two counts of aggravated first-degree murder, rejecting his claim that a rare alcohol disorder triggered the grisly stabbing deaths of Sarah A. Clark, 18, and Tanner E. Pehl, 20, on Feb. 28, 2008.
“The murders gave us a life sentence, and he deserves no less,” said Teesha Clark, Clark’s mother.
Crenshaw appeared unemotional and stared straight ahead, clenching his jaw slightly, while Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen read the verdict. He will be sentenced Aug. 5.
The jury of five men and seven women spent about four hours deliberating after a two-week trial.
At issue was whether Crenshaw intended to kill Clark and Pehl.
His lawyer, Chris Bugbee, asked jurors to convict Crenshaw of first-degree manslaughter, claiming Crenshaw suffers from a rare disorder that causes bizarre behavior after drinking alcohol.
But Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll offered a different explanation for the grisly crimes during his closing argument Monday.
“He lacks a conscience,” Driscoll said of Crenshaw. “The crime scene photos show you that.”
Clark was stabbed 26 times before her body was posed with a Samurai sword positioned at her nearly severed head. Pehl was stabbed more than a dozen times before a blanket was placed over his dead body and a broadsword was plunged through his abdomen four times before it lodged in his spine.
Investigators believe Crenshaw found the swords while ransacking the Pehl home after the murders.
Jurors ruled that Crenshaw, who has a previous assault conviction for stabbing a friend in the back as a juvenile, committed the murders with deliberate cruelty and that the slayings were part of a common plan or scheme.
The two possible punishments for aggravated first-degree murder in Washington are death and life in prison without parole; prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty.
Crenshaw’s mother and grandmother, who live in Las Vegas and attended the trial, declined comment after the verdict other than to say the case “is far from over.”
Pehl’s mother, Laurie Pehl, said she feels “so sorry” for Crenshaw’s family.
“But I’m more happy for my family – my family and Sarah’s family,” she said.
Clark’s father, Steve Clark, also praised the verdict.
“We feel like Sarah got justice,” he said.
“But,” he added, “we still have to live without her for the rest of our lives.”
Clark was a senior at Mead High School who worked at a grocery store and wanted to be a hairstylist. A black and white painted bench sits at the high school in memory of her and a zebra-striped coat she often wore. Pehl had graduated from Mead and worked as a chef at the now-closed Brooklyn’s Woodfire Grill on North Newport Highway, where he met Crenshaw.
Crenshaw, who spent time in rehab for heroin addiction, had left Las Vegas about two weeks before the murders to visit his long-lost sister in Spokane, Nikki Vanvlymen. Crenshaw soon began dating Clark, Vanvlymen’s close friend, and decided to stay in Spokane.
Driscoll said in his closing argument that Crenshaw may have killed Clark because she wasn’t interested in having sex with him. On the night of the murders, Pehl went to the bedroom to investigate Clark’s screams and was overpowered by Crenshaw, Driscoll said.
But Bugbee said Crenshaw had no motive for the crime and blamed the alcohol disorder. Bugbee called just two witnesses – a psychiatrist who said Crenshaw may suffer from the disorder, and a childhood friend who told jurors about Crenshaw acting violent after drinking alcohol as a teenager.
Crenshaw, Pehl and Clark were drinking at the home where Pehl lived with his mother and brother at 512 E. Elm Road the night of the murders. One witness testified to hearing screams coming from the Pehl home about 3:40 a.m. A motorist called 911 after he saw the home on fire about 4:30 a.m.
A bloody fingerprint on a door connected Crenshaw to the crime. Investigators found Crenshaw’s bloody clothes in his aunt’s garage two months after the murders.
Family and friends of Clark and Pehl are expected to speak at Crenshaw’s sentencing next week. Bugbee said Crenshaw and his family likely will speak, “but obviously it won’t have any effect on his sentence.”
When asked if Crenshaw was remorseful, Bugbee said, “Of course he is.”
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