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Tuesday, May 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

No trial for murder suspect?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Lorraine Marks describes the day she drove to her parents' Des Moines home and found the street lined with police cars and the home circled with crime-scene tape. She knew something was wrong, she said, but the truth was beyond her worst fears.

Inside the house, Marks' parents, Dick and Jane Larson, 63 and 64, were found shot to death, and her 17-year-old son, Taelor Marks, and his girlfriend, Josie Peterson, 17, were found dead, beaten.

Now, more than four years after police encountered the scene, Marks has yet to see the man who was arrested in connection with the slayings stand trial. Marks said she was outraged to hear that criminal charges against Leemah Carneh, 23, could be dropped next week if a judge rules that the defendant is mentally incompetent to stand trial. Such a finding would mean Carneh could not be tried for at least a year, which, according to state statues, is the length of time that a defendant deemed incompetent can face criminal charges. The statutes require that charges be dropped, in the meantime, so there can be a civil commitment to a mental institution.

The state is essentially allowed three mental-health treatment sessions during a year — two 90-day sessions and one six-month period — in which to restore a person to competency.

The last time Carneh's mental competency was weighed within the past year, he was ruled incompetent. If he is found incompetent during a hearing next week, criminal charges could be dropped and he would be returned to Western State Hospital for treatment. Evidence of Carneh's alleged crimes also would be introduced during the civil-commitment procedure.

"It's unbelievable to me," said Lorraine Marks, who has written dozens of letters to elected officials and members of the legal system urging them to look again at the statute that governs competency. "He wrote the book on how to commit murder and get away with it."

"They're saying you can get away with murder in Seattle," said Josie Peterson's mother, Mary Marrero, who since the slayings has become a close friend of Marks'. "I'm furious with the system."

Carneh's attorneys, Carl Luer and Louis Franz, said in a previous interview that Carneh is severely mentally ill, suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from his youth in war-torn Liberia, and believed that Taelor Marks was after him.

Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for the King County Prosecutor's Office, would not comment on the possible outcome of the June 1 hearing, except to say, "We acknowledge and share the frustration of everyone involved in this case because it has taken this long with no resolution, but this case could still go to trial and that continues to be our goal."

Legal experts said that if Carneh is found incompetent again and the criminal charges against him are dismissed without prejudice, prosecutors would be able to refile the murder charges against him if he regained his mental health.

They said that regardless of the outcome of next week's hearing, Carneh would not likely be set free and would face prison or hospitalization for the rest of his life.

Carneh was arrested four days after the March 8, 2001, slayings — after he allegedly sold Taelor Marks' 1978 Monte Carlo for $300, police and prosecutors say. The quadruple slaying likely was spurred by jealousy and obsession with Taelor Marks and Josie Peterson, according to the prosecution's court filings.

Court documents say police found blood-spattered clothing, a gun and items belonging to the victims, including Josie Peterson's ring, Marks' car stereo and several of the Larsons' suitcases, in Carneh's home.

Carneh, who initially pleaded not guilty and then changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity, was charged with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

Court records show that mental-health experts have diagnosed Carneh variously as a paranoid schizophrenic or as suffering from an unidentified psychosis. He has been shuttled back and forth several times between the King County Jail and Western State Hospital, where he is given anti-psychotic drugs in an attempt to restore his competency.

Although Carneh has been ruled competent to stand trial several times, court records suggest that his mental health deteriorates when he is returned to the jail.

The case also was delayed by a nearly two-year appeal, ultimately decided by the state Supreme Court, that protected Carneh's right not to make incriminating statements during his mental-health evaluation. That ruling allowed Carneh to refuse to answer questions about the crimes posed by the prosecution's evaluator, limiting the state's ability to assess the defendant's mental health.

Legal experts said that while the dismay felt by Marks and Marrero is understandable, their sentiments should not be used to determine or alter state laws and protection of those who are mentally ill and unable to control their actions.

"I'm very sympathetic to her feelings," said John Strait, a Seattle University law professor. "But that understandable reaction should not become the driving force behind the law. Every victim has a vendetta and thinks the law is not enough in their case, but the law is supposed to be concerned with societal needs. The law seeks to rise above vendetta."

Strait said Washington state has an extremely narrow definition of insanity and that fewer than 1 percent of all defendants in criminal trials qualify. He said the laws governing mental health and competence seek to protect the truly ill.

"Since 1066, English and American common law has recognized that imposing criminal punishment on someone who is insane is nuts," Strait said. "It defeats the purpose of criminal law."

Marks, Marrero and their families said they've heard all that before and are still unconvinced. They believe Carneh is acting and they want him to stand trial.

"He's a different person every time he comes into court," Marrero said. "He swaggers, he calls me by name and he cusses me out. He knows what's going on."

They also say there's abundant evidence that Carneh had the presence of mind to plan the crime, stalk the victims and attempt to cover his steps.

"He wasn't insane when he did it," Marrero said. "They should have never sent him to Western. That's where he learned how to run his game on the system."

To Marks, the bottom line is that the person accused of killing three members of her family may not go to prison or even face trial.

"I believe my family deserves to have the evidence — which is their voice — heard in a court of law," Marks said. "Is that really so much to ask?"

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published May 24, 2005, was corrected May 30, 2005. A previous version of this story stated that Leemah Carneh's attorneys did not return phone calls from a reporter. The reporter inadvertently left messages at a now-defunct voice mail number.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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