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Jury Urges Execution for Stayner

Courts: Panel rejects arguments about his tortured childhood and testimony by 50 character witnesses.

October 10, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JOSE — A jury declared Wednesday that Yosemite murderer Cary Stayner should be executed for the slaying of three women tourists, killings that rattled the serenity of the Sierra woods in 1999.

The jury pushed aside arguments that Stayner, 41, should be spared a trip to death row because of dogged mental health problems and a loveless childhood rife with dysfunction and family tragedy.

Stayner faces a Dec. 12 sentencing before Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Hastings in the murders of Carole Sund, 42, of Eureka, her 15-year-old daughter, Juli, and Silvina Pelosso, 16, a family friend visiting from Argentina.

Jurors avoided eye contact with Stayner as they stepped into a packed courtroom after less than six hours of deliberations over two days. As the verdict was read, Stayner sat motionless and the courtroom remained hushed.

His attorney, Marcia Morrissey, said afterward that she would request a new Superior Court trial in addition to the appeal automatically filed in capital punishment cases. Morrissey, who jousted repeatedly with Hastings throughout the trial, had hoped even more evidence of Stayner's troubled past might be presented.

"This fight won't be over for Cary Stayner until he gets a fair trial," Morrissey said. "Obviously I'm very disappointed."

But the family of Carole and Juli Sund countered that a mountain of evidence had been presented--and a just verdict reached.

"Condemning Cary Stayner to death is not happy for anybody," said Carole Carrington, whose daughter and granddaughter died at Stayner's hands. "But it's justice."

The Sunds and Pelosso vanished in February 1999 from the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, a tiny community in a deep river gorge outside Yosemite National Park.

One of the biggest searches in state history ended four weeks later and a county away when the torched hulk of their rental car was discovered on a forest logging road with the charred remains of two victims in the trunk.

Note Led to Body

An anonymous note--Stayner later admitted to sending it, even asking someone else to lick the stamp--led authorities within days to the shore of a nearby lake, where they found the nude body of Juli Sund, her neck sliced open.

Initially, the FBI focused on a group of methamphetamine addicts in Modesto, and by summer felt solid enough about the case to publicly announce that it was safe again to return to the woods.

But five months after the tourists disappeared, Joie Ruth Armstrong, 26, became Stayner's fourth victim. Her beheaded body was found near the Yosemite nature guide's cabin in a remote corner of the park in July 1999.

Within days of the gruesome killing, authorities caught up with Stayner. He pleaded guilty in federal court to Armstrong's murder to avoid the death penalty.

State prosecutors refused to budge in the killing of the tourists, a case tried in a state Superior Court because it occurred outside the national park. The trial was moved from Mariposa County to San Jose because of pretrial publicity in the Sierra foothills.

George Williamson, the lead prosecutor, described Stayner as a methodical killer who carefully hatched a plan to hunt down young women like prey, sexually assault them and kill them.

Stayner, he noted, even left wet towels in the motel room to make it look as if the three women had showered and left, hardly the moves of a mind clouded by mental illness.

In a taped confession played at the trial, Stayner admitted that he used the ruse of a leaking pipe to get into the motel room of his victims. He strangled Carole Sund and Pelosso, then took Juli Sund on a winding journey that ended on the shore of Lake Don Pedro.

Stayner confessed to FBI agents that he carried the high school cheerleader from the car like a "groom carried a bride across the threshold," then sexually assaulted her. Stayner told Sund that the gun he wielded at Cedar Lodge never was loaded. Then he slit her throat.

The 12-week trial played out in three parts, with the jury in August finding Stayner guilty and in September declaring that he was sane during the killings. The penalty phase stretched over 12 days, as jurors weighed whether Stayner should die by lethal injection or live out the remainder of his life in prison.

From the trial's first day, defense lawyers conceded that Stayner killed the three women. But they said he suffered mental health problems that should keep him off San Quentin's death row.

Asking Jury for Mercy

Morrissey, the defense attorney, noted that Stayner had shown remorse and pleaded with jurors to "overcome the cruelty of Cary Stayner's acts with understanding, mercy and love."

Morrissey said a lethal mix of mental health issues--obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and sexual dysfunction--boiled over in 1999. Visions and voices Stayner experienced for years--ranging from Nazi death camps to beheadings--took over, she said. The man who had been a passive and kind presence for 37 years turned into a killer.

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