Suspected serial killer Joseph E. Duncan III didn’t utter a word Tuesday, even as a judge informed him he could face the death penalty if convicted of murdering a North Idaho family.
The 42-year-old sex offender gazed expressionlessly at his hands during his District Court appearance as the judge read the charges that he plotted and carried out a plan to kidnap and murder three people “by inflicting severe and extensive head trauma.”
After Judge Fred Gibler asked for his plea, Duncan’s attorney responded for his client. “He stands silent on that,” said Kootenai County Public Defender John Adams.
The court entered a not guilty plea for Duncan and set his trial for Jan. 17. The trial is expected to take three to four weeks.
Immediately following Tuesday’s arraignment, Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas announced his intention to seek the death penalty if Duncan is found guilty on any one of the six counts filed against him.
The document declaring that intention will be filed today, Douglas said, and will include the aggravating circumstances that are necessary by law to warrant the death penalty.
Duncan is accused of using duct tape and zip ties to bind his victims – Brenda Groene, 40; her boyfriend, 37-year-old Mark McKenzie; and her 13-year-old son, Slade Groene – and then using a hammer to bludgeon them to death.
Investigators believe Duncan stalked the family and planned the attack after seeing Brenda Groene’s youngest child, 8-year-old Shasta, playing outside their home on East Frontage Road in her bathing suit.
They allege that Duncan also bound Shasta and her 9-year-old brother Dylan, then abducted them, taking them to Montana where he allegedly sexually molested them multiple times. Shasta was recovered July 2 when she appeared in a Coeur d’Alene Denny’s with Duncan.
Dylan’s remains were found three days later at a remote campsite in Montana.
Among the possible aggravating factors that Douglas could list to advocate the death penalty are that other murders were committed at the same time; that the murder was especially atrocious or cruel; that he showed an utter disregard for human life; that it was done with the intent to commit a rape or other “mayhem;” or that his conduct constitutes a continuing threat to society.
Adams expressed disagreement that the death penalty could apply to all the counts in the case, but his argument was largely inaudible in the crowded courtroom.
“We could anticipate some motions at a later stage,” Douglas said after the hearing, in response to Adams opposition to the death penalty.
But first, Douglas said, the crimes must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury.
Steve Groene, Brenda’s ex-husband and the father of Slade, Shasta and Dylan, said he wasn’t surprised at the passive not guilty plea.
“We have every confidence in the prosecution that they have a good, strong case and we’re going to get a positive outcome,” said Groene in a hoarse voice.
Groene, who now is caring for Shasta, was recently diagnosed with cancer of the vocal cords. Wendy Price, his sister, said the cancer was caught early and is treatable.
She expressed disgust at Duncan’s silence, and regret that Shasta may now have to testify at the pending trial.
“He’s too much of a coward to even open his mouth,” she said. “I was hoping that Shasta wouldn’t have to go forward with this, but I guess we can’t force his hand.”
McKenzie’s mother, Lee Wood, also attended the arraignment, which was heavily guarded by sheriff’s deputies and bailiffs.
“I was hoping he would plead guilty,” she said. “You can’t have everything you wish for. I guess he’ll be going to trial, and I’ll be there.”
Now that prosecutors have confirmed their intent to seek the death penalty, Duncan’s defense attorneys have access to a state fund for county public defenders fighting a potential death penalty. Adams and Deputy Public Defender Lynn Nelson also now have the assistance of Roger Peven, executive director of the Federal Defenders for Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
The U.S. Justice Department is expected to file kidnapping and murder charges against Duncan for his involvement in the abduction of Shasta and Dylan Groene, and Dylan’s death, following the conclusion of the state’s case.
The FBI has taken the lead on the child abduction case and Dylan’s murder, and continues to piece together a timeline tracking Duncan’s whereabouts from when he was in prison until he was found with Shasta. That information could be essential in other child abduction and murder cases where Duncan has been named a person of interest.
Duncan is being investigated for possible involvement in other unsolved homicides across the western United States, with authorities in Seattle and southern California confirming they have evidence that appears to link him to cases there.
If Duncan is convicted of first-degree murder or kidnapping in the Kootenai County case, the jury that convicts him also will be asked to determine whether or not he should be put to death. Until recently, judges determined the sentence in capital cases.
The last Idaho death row inmates from Kootenai County were Donald Paradis and Thomas Gibson, who were convicted and sentenced in 1981 for the death of 19-year-old Kimberly Palmer, whose body was found strangled in a creek in Post Falls.
Both men were released when their convictions were overturned by an appeals court.