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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Murder defendant will get new attorney

Justin Crenshaw walks past family members of Tanner Pehl on July 8, 2008. It was the family's first time seeing Crenshaw in person. He successfully asked Judge Tari Eitzen for a new lawyer at the hearing, saying an employee of the public defender's office was close friends with Sarah Clark's family. (The Spokesman-Review)
Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer

The man accused of killing two people in February and torching a north Spokane house in an attempt to cover the crimes will get a new attorney.

Although Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen said Tuesday she doesn’t believe the Spokane County public defender’s office mishandled the case, Justin W. Crenshaw’s opposition to his representation and a potential conflict of interest within the defender’s office warrant the case being handled by the Counsel for Defense, a Spokane agency that handles cases for the defender’s office.

“I can see how you feel not good about it,” Eitzen said. “Any time trust is broken down between counsel and client, then that becomes counterproductive.”

Dressed in a light-blue jail jumper and stroking a bushy chin beard, 20-year-old Crenshaw told Eitzen on Tuesday about why he believed he needed new representation, citing Internet blog postings with details from the case he believes were leaked by his defense and detailing the relationship between the public defender’s chief investigator and the family of victim Sarah A. Clark.

Clark, 18, and Tanner E. Pehl, 20, were found dead in the burning Pehl family home on Elm Street early Feb. 28. Police arrested Crenshaw Feb. 29. He’d been in trouble before – an aggravated assault conviction in Nevada netted him 18 months in jail.

In an interview Thursday evening at the Spokane County Jail, he described his attorney’s work on the case as “very frustrating.”

“I might not know all about the legal procedures, but I have enough common knowledge to know things aren’t right,” he said. “There’s too many coincidences.”

Crenshaw had been in town about two weeks when he was arrested. The recovering heroin addict traveled from Las Vegas to Spokane to reunite with his sister, who had been adopted by an aunt years ago.

Clark, who would have graduated from Mead High School in June, was Crenshaw’s sister’s best friend. Pehl worked at Brooklyn’s Woodfire Grill, where Crenshaw started working just days before the killings.

According to court documents, Crenshaw told police he’d been drinking Hennessy cognac at the home with Clark and Pehl but felt sick and went to a friend’s apartment, where Clark, whom he had been dating, was to pick him up. But police think Crenshaw stabbed Clark and Pehl to death, then tried torching the home to cover the crimes.

A bloody fingerprint linked him to the scene, and Crenshaw’s aunt told authorities she discovered a plastic bucket in her garage in late April containing what appeared to be his bloody clothes.

Prosecutors added aggravating circumstances to Crenshaw’s first-degree murder charges, making him eligible for the death penalty.

In court Tuesday, Crenshaw read an e-mail from his now former attorney in which the attorney describes the investigator’s relationship with the Clark family as being so close that heir children have had sleepovers together and that the investigator’s family helped arrange Clark’s funeral.

The blog postings Crenshaw referred to appear as comments to an online news story at One poster claims to be a friend of an investigator and writes of crime scene details not available in public court filings or police reports. Crenshaw said the details must have come from sealed investigation papers.

“Doesn’t that have to be violating something?” Crenshaw asked Eitzen.

Eitzen said proper jury screening will moot any conflict that could arise from leaked information.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t be wasting my time dwelling on that,” she said. “You focus on working with whatever attorney you’re going to end up with.”

Clark’s and Pehl’s families saw Crenshaw in person for the first time Tuesday. The families filled two benches during the 30-minute hearing, rarely taking their eyes off Crenshaw.

“I wanted him to look me in the eyes,” said Pehl’s mother, Laurie Pehl, after the hearing. “But he didn’t.”

Crenshaw said he couldn’t bear to look at the Pehls or Clarks because he knows they think he’s guilty.

“It’s hard to look at people with them thinking I’m guilty of taking their son or daughter’s life, when I didn’t do it,” he said. “I can’t even imagine how they feel. As much as I got to know them, they (Clark and Pehl) were great people.”

“This is not ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ ” he continued. “Right now, everyone’s looking at me like I’m guilty.”