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JURY RECOMMENDS DEATH FOR MURDERER.

Byline: Jeannette DeSantis Daily News Staff Writer

A jury recommended a death sentence Wednesday for a man convicted of the random murders of two store clerks during a monthlong crime spree.

After deliberating a little more than a day, the jury delivered the death verdict, apparently rejecting the defense theory that Richard Leon, 30, was the product of an abusive upbringing that caused him to feel alienated and turn to a life of crime.

``The abuse excuse was greatly exaggerated for the jury,'' said prosecutor Jacquelyn Lacey. ``He started this crime spree because he had a drug problem and needed the money for a serious cocaine habit.''

Leon was convicted of 23 counts, including murder, the special circumstance of multiple murders, and a string of robberies and assaults in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and Beverly Hills last month.

His crime spree began in January 1993 with the invasion-style robbery of a Beverly Hills jewelry store along with two accomplices. Leon and the other men got away with $800,000 in jewelry.

Two weeks later, Leon robbed a North Hollywood pawnshop of $5,000. In that heist, his accomplices shot and seriously injured two workers.

Then on Feb. 2, 1993, Leon, who previously had been convicted of robbery, shot Norair Akhverdian, 42, when he robbed a Sun Valley Shell gas station.

Videotape of that murder was played for jurors. It shows Leon grab the cash out of the register, jump over the counter to leave, then turn around and shoot Akhverdian in the chest as the clerk stands with his hands up.

Akhverdian, a father of four, was killed instantly when the bullet pierced his heart.

A week later, Leon shot Varouj Armenian, 39, a popular Armenian singer in the face and neck after he robbed Armenian's Hollywood Boulevard liquor store.

During the penalty phase, a sobbing Margaret Armenian described the day her husband was killed.

``My mom said something was wrong at the store and instantly I said, `Oh my God, I feel my husband is dead,' '' a tearful Armenian said. ``We had plans to order food at the liquor store for lunch, but I never saw him again.''

But defense attorney Kenneth Lezin urged the jury to spare his client's life, describing Leon as confused and emotionally dysfunctional.

According to a psychosocial cultural evaluation commissioned by the defense, Leon's mother, Josephine Jumping Eagle, who died in 1993, had taught him to distrust the ``white man'' after she was uprooted from her South Dakota reservation and moved to California by the federal government.

Leon himself was raised as an American Indian in the Los Angeles area by his grandmother, a member of the Pine Ridge Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. He said his father, Richard Browne, who was white, drank, abused drugs and beat Leon from the age of 8.

Leon told psychologists his biracial background, coupled with his drug-abusing parents, caused him to not have roots or a total identity.

He quit school after the sixth grade and started smoking marijuana at age 11, the report stated. At 12, he robbed a blind man of money in his pockets.

Between the ages of 13 and 18, Leon spent more than four years in juvenile hall. When he was 18, he went to prison for robbery and assault. After less than three years in prison, he was freed and soon started drinking heavily and using cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines.

Lezin, who had offered to plead guilty to the charges for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, explained his client's actions:

``He lived in a drug and alcohol haze, driven by compulsions he could not contain and hungers he could not control.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 25, 1996
Words:617
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