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Defense Argues Killer Is Insane

Courts: Lawyer tells jurors in the retrial that it's the only explanation for why his client set a man on fire outside a San Fernando store.

January 29, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A defense attorney asked a San Fernando jury Monday to find a 22-year-old pyromaniac insane for killing a man he set on fire in 1997.

Jose Manuel Carranza of Sylmar was convicted of first-degree murder and arson last year, but the jury deadlocked on whether he was insane when the crimes were committed. In the retrial, which is drawing to a close after a week of testimony, the jury must decide only that question.

Luciano Olmeda, 45, was drunk and unconscious, propped against a wall outside a San Fernando convenience store, when Carranza attacked him May 18, 1997. Carranza kicked him in the face, breaking his jaw, loosening teeth and causing bleeding on the brain, Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Taklender said. He also kicked Olmeda in the groin before pouring paint thinner in his lap and igniting it.

Olmeda suffered third-degree burns over half his body and died later that day in a hospital.

Hours before the attack, Carranza, who had been diagnosed as a pyromaniac, started two trash can fires and burned the front doors of churches in San Fernando and Pacoima, both sides agree.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Meredith C. Taylor could sentence Carranza to 30 years to life in prison, his attorney, Dale Rubin, said. Or the ninth-grade dropout could be sent to a mental institution, possibly for life, if the jury finds him legally insane.

In his closing arguments, Rubin said his client's conduct cannot be explained, except by insanity.

"If he is not legally insane, why did this happen? What is the motive?" Rubin said.

He showed jurors a home video of Carranza, then 9, being hit in the forehead with a baseball bat at a pinata party. He said the blow may have caused a mental disorder.

Rubin said Carranza hears voices and sees "little faces" in the flames. The young man blames his victim for dying, the lawyer said.

Reading from a medical report, Rubin said Carranza told a court-appointed doctor, "I didn't kill him. He killed himself."

Carranza said Olmeda should have rolled to put out the flames.

Although he doesn't have a criminal record, Carranza may have been responsible for as many as 50 fires over the years, Rubin said. At 13, he was apprehended by police for starting a fire at a school but was never charged, he said.

But prosecutor Taklender argued Carranza has never been treated for a mental disorder, not even while in jail.

He said Carranza is manipulative and cruel and is using an insanity defense to shun responsibility for killing Olmeda.

"This should be an easy one for you," he told jurors. "There is no evidence that the defendant was so sick that he didn't know what he was doing."

Closing arguments are expected to conclude today.

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