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Carasi Given Death Penalty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly three years after he hacked his mother and the mother of his child to death in a Universal CityWalk parking lot, a jury on Monday decided Paul Carasi should die for his crimes.

His lover, Donna Lee, was spared the same fate by two holdout jurors who, unable to decide how large a role she played in the Mother’s Day slayings, could not vote for death and forced a hung jury.

Carasi maintained his composure until the verdicts had been read; when the judge polled jurors, he broke down and wept uncontrollably. Carasi’s defense lawyer declined to comment and Lee’s lawyer left quickly after the hearing and could not be reached later.

Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Leslie Light declared a mistrial on Lee’s penalty and prosecutors said they have yet to decide whether to retry her and seek death or accept the sentence of life without parole guaranteed by her conviction on the murder charges.

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Carasi and Lee have been held without bail since shortly after the murders.

“I spent many, many, many hours thinking about this and I could not get to the death penalty for her,” said juror Sarah Rudd, her eyes watering. “The evidence did not appear to be as clear as it did with Mr. Carasi.”

Deputy Dist. Attys. John Gilligan and Phil Stirling had called the defendants “co-equals and co-participants before, during and after the murders,” which were committed in front of Carasi’s 2-year-old son, Michael.

During the penalty phase, Deputy Public Defender Ralph Courtney had argued that Carasi, who will be formally sentenced later this month, was not a good candidate for death.

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“The death penalty should be reserved for the worst possible people who qualify. These are supposed to be rabid killers, career criminals. People who never did anything good in their life,” Courtney said. “That is not Paul Carasi.”

But the slayings were shocking enough to be the subject of a vigil by the National Organization for Women, which called them a brutal symbol of the severity of violence against women in the United States.

Carasi was covered in blood when he called police to the Universal CityWalk parking garage May 14, 1995, claiming that he, his mother and his ex-girlfriend had been attacked by robbers. Carasi said he had been held down as the women were slain.

Moments later, Lee used a call box nearby on the Hollywood Freeway to contact authorities. She, too, claimed to have been attacked by robbers, her abdomen slit open, exposing her intestines.

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Injured during the knife fight at the parking lot, she had locked her keys in her car while disposing of the murder weapon and other bloody evidence over the highway embankment.

Carasi and Lee had decided to kill his ex-girlfriend, Sonia Salinas, after she attached his wages for child support for their son, Michael, now 5. They killed Doris Carasi, Paul Carasi’s mother, because she sided with Salinas.

“What’s striking to me is that these are middle-class people from the Valley who had jobs and had some success in their jobs,” said Gilligan, lead prosecutor in the case. “These were people who had choices and whose deeds were so dark.”

Whether the district attorney’s office takes a second attempt to get a death sentence in Lee’s case will depend on his superiors and the wishes of the victims’ relatives, said Gilligan. One issue, he said, is that, because the case is based on circumstantial evidence, a retrial would be long and complicated.

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For Jose Antonio Salinas, whose daughter was Carasi’s ex-girlfriend, the issue is clear.

“For us, they are both just as guilty,” he said.

“Maybe they were thinking about her as a mother and a woman,” he said. “But she didn’t think of that before the killings. All she thought about was her own benefit.”

Jurors said Lee’s gender, although discussed early in the deliberations, was not a deciding factor.

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“That was an issue in the beginning” for the male holdout juror, forewoman Heather Rangel said. “But we talked that one out.”

Rudd, the other holdout, said she wondered whether Lee’s gender was making the decision harder on her, but said she tried to imagine her as a man and still felt death was inappropriate.

Rudd also said she believed Lee was a battered woman, as her defense lawyer characterized her in his plea to save her life, and that abusive past was one of the reasons she couldn’t execute her.

Laurie Levenson, associate dean at Loyola Law School said that although the jurors may not have openly decided they couldn’t recommend death for Lee because of her sex, it likely still had an impact.

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“The question is, when it’s a woman, do they look a little harder for things in her favor? Statistically, we know they do,” Levenson said. “I think frankly it’s because it doesn’t fit our image of a woman. We don’t see women as easily in the role of being violent or hostile or evil.”

Although women commit 15% of the murders, Levenson said, fewer than 1% face execution.

Since the death penalty was reinstituted in California in the 1980s, eight women have been put on death row. None has been executed.

However the issue of sex may have weighed on two jurors, the other 10 still voted for death.

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“The brutality of the crime, the horrible mutilation and the fact that they did it in front of that child, that tore me up. I can’t believe anybody would do that,” said juror Bob Picard, a retiree, who was in the majority.


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