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Expert: Secrecy contributed to 9th Circuit ruling

When Joseph Duncan received three death sentences and nine life terms in federal court in Idaho for his murderous 2005 attack on the Groene family in North Idaho, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge ordered two extensive mental evaluations that delayed Duncan's death penalty sentencing trial for months. But he never held a hearing on the issue in open court; as a result, all of Duncan's mental evaluations remained secret.

James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on the death penalty and mental competency, said, “There's no reason for the judge in Idaho to keep all this stuff secret - there's just no reason at all.” Said Cohen, “The only justification would be to protect the privacy of the defendant.” But, he said, “He lost that when he was indicted for this particular crime.”

Secrecy was extensive in the sentencing trial, with numerous documents sealed from public view, leading to several legal challenges by the media. Much of the secrecy came because the case involved a surviving child victim, but it also covered all issues of Duncan's mental competency. Cohen said there are “at least two benefits” to a public competency hearing. The first, he said, is that psychologists, psychiatrists or other experts “might be able to learn something from his mental illness that could head off others. And two, it's very important that our system work right - and we don't punish people that are mentally ill to that extreme.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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