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Originally published Tuesday, September 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Experts disagree on whether alleged killer is competent

The mental-health experts who've examined Leemah Carneh all agree the 23-year-old accused of killing four people in a Des Moines house in...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The mental-health experts who've examined Leemah Carneh all agree the 23-year-old accused of killing four people in a Des Moines house in 2001 is mentally ill.

What they disagree about is whether Carneh, who believes he possesses superhuman powers, has been given enough psychotropic drugs to be deemed competent to stand trial.

Yesterday, during a King County Superior Court hearing that capped more than four years of legal wrangling, prosecutors argued that Carneh understands the case against him and is able to help in his own defense. Further, the prosecutor argued, there's a strong public interest in holding people accountable for their crimes.

But Carneh's lawyers argued that Carneh still suffers from intense delusions that prevent him from rationally assisting them.

Mental-health experts on both sides of the case testified that Carneh, who is black, believes he was born white in England but was kidnapped at birth and dyed brown in punishment for some unknown wrong. He also believes he is a member of a religion called Anglica Biblica that will intervene on his behalf.

"His delusions swallow the case," one of his attorneys, Carl Luer, said after the hearing. "He believes that by going to trial now, Anglica Biblica will intervene and that the judge will acquit him. He thinks he will be set free. That's just nuts.

"And when he's making decisions like that," Luer said, "well, that's not competent."

Carneh is accused of killing Dick and Jane Larson, their 17-year-old grandson, Taelor Marks, and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Josie Peterson, on March 8, 2001. The Larsons had been shot; Peterson was beaten and stabbed and Marks, who was the primary target, had been beaten, stabbed and shot.

Carneh was arrested four days later after police say he sold Marks' 1978 Monte Carlo to a friend's brother for $300.

Since his arrest, Carneh has been shuttled back and forth more than a half-dozen times between jail and Western State Hospital, where he is forcibly injected with a cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs that occasionally seems to restore some level of competency.

Court records show that Carneh then is sent back to the King County Jail, where he "decompensates" or gets worse.

During the days-long competency hearing, the state and the defense teams each produced two mental-health experts who had evaluated Carneh within the past month.

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The state's two experts said that Carneh has enough grasp on reality to help out his lawyers. The defense experts disagreed. If Superior Court Judge Michael Spearman finds Carneh is competent, he will go to trial on four counts of aggravated first-degree murder. If found guilty, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Spearman has said he will issue his ruling in 10 days.

If Carneh is found to be incompetent, the charges will be dropped and he will be civilly committed to a mental institution. In that case, prosecutors said, they would refile charges if Carneh were ever to regain competency.

To be found competent, the state requires that people be able to understand the nature of the proceedings against them and rationally help their attorneys defend them.

The state also limits the length of time a person who has been found incompetent can face criminal charges — allowing two mental-health treatment sessions of 90 days and one of 180 days in which to restore a person to competency.

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


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