July 17, 2005 in City

Duncan galvanizes a city on death penalty

Christopher Rodkey And Thomas Clouse Staff writers
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Davis Donuts, whose readerboard at 4th Street and Appleway in Coeur d’Alene has been known to carry messages both deep and silly, now offers thoughts about Joseph Edward Duncan III.
(Full-size photo)

More on this topic

Background and the latest updates

When the Rev. Patrick W. Bell stands before his congregation at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church today, he will preach that part of God’s plan involves the bad and the good living together.

But when Bell returns home to his wife and children, the pastor – who opposes the death penalty – believes the man accused of murdering four members of a North Idaho family should die.

“How can you do this to kids and even the parents?” he asked. “At what point do you finally say, ‘Maybe it’s time something has to change?’ ”

In the wake of an attack that left a family dead and an 8-year-old girl carrying horrific memories, sentiment throughout Coeur d’Alene and the region is almost universal: If Joseph Edward Duncan III is found guilty, he should face death. It’s a case that, for the first time in as long as many can remember, has an entire community talking as a group about violence, its consequences and how it should be punished.

“He needs to be castrated and thrown in a cave,” skateboarder Joe Toews suggested. “When there’s that much evidence, he deserves to die. I don’t think the standard execution is enough.”

The crime itself is terrifying to citizens of Coeur d’Alene, a town where horrible news usually comes from a satellite, not from neighbors.

Police say Duncan chose the Groene house in Wolf Lodge Bay at random, studied it for days, then bound his victims and used a hammer to bludgeon and kill Brenda Groene, her son Slade Groene, and her boyfriend, Mark McKenzie. Duncan also took Shasta and Dylan Groene, ages 8 and 9, with him, hiding in the Montana woods for weeks and allegedly molesting the children repeatedly before slaying Dylan, police said.

The pile of evidence that seems to grow with each passing day is enough for Marilyn Cooper and her daughter, Heather Cooper-Krajic, to advocate death for Duncan.

“I think he has done so much hurt and so much damage for so many people,” Cooper, the owner of Simple Pleasures Home Décor, said, noting that people in the city are particularly frustrated by how Duncan apparently slipped through the criminal justice system too many times.

“It was so premeditated and it was such a horrific, heinous crime, I don’t see how he couldn’t get the death penalty,” Cooper-Krajic said.

Just as the nature of the crime shocked people in Coeur d’Alene, so too did its location so close to home, said Kenny Bartlett, who waited for lunch at a busy Hudson’s Hamburgers on Sherman Avenue.

“I think a lot of people in this town are very angry,” he said. “They’re mad as hell. Coeur d’Alene isn’t used to this. This isn’t southern California, it’s Coeur d’Alene and things like that aren’t supposed to happen here.”

Some who are on the fence with their views on capital punishment find this case troubling.

Tom Keefe, former chairman of the Spokane County Democratic Party and one-time candidate for Congress, described himself as “pretty soft” on the death penalty. But not when it’s applied to Duncan.

“It’s a very human response that the first thing we want to do is remove this vermin from the face of the earth,” Keefe said. “This guy is an easy, charismatic candidate for the death penalty.”

Keefe wasn’t willing to lay the blame solely on Duncan. He also questioned the actions of the legal system and every law enforcement agency who ever came across Duncan.

“There are certain types of behavior that I don’t think are able to be changed by a penal system or education. What do you do with time bombs?” he asked. “If there is a case left for the death penalty in the state of Idaho, I’m sure a lot of people would say this guy would win the election.”

While community-wide compassion for the family and Shasta Groene, the only family member to survive the ordeal, is clear, talk about the suspected killer is rare and muted when actually discussed, Rev. Bell said.

“Even though we have finally talked about it here with our staff, it took us weeks to even mention it,” he said. “It’s so awful that it’s almost like we can’t talk about it.”

The incident reminds him of his childhood growing up in Spokane, when 9-year-old Candy Rogers disappeared, was raped and killed in Spokane while out selling Girl Scout cookies.

“I remember being absolutely traumatized in the fact that somebody could do something so awful, and our whole innocence had been lost,” he said. “This brings up all that old stuff again, that people can be so evil, and that it exists.”

The same law enforcement agency that led the investigation into Duncan’s apprehension now is having to figure out how best to keep the suspect safe while awaiting trail.

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said Duncan has been kept in a glass cell where he can be constantly observed and is not allowed to interact with other prisoners.

The department also has created a security plan to keep Duncan safe until his trial, Watson said.

Despite the evidence, citizens should be patient and let the justice system work its course, said the Rev. Mike Bullard, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Coeur d’Alene.

“It’s very dangerous for people to come to conclusions and punishments before a trial,” Bullard said.

While most people in Coeur d’Alene seem in support of the death penalty if Duncan is found guilty, capital punishment opponents believe life in prison may be a far worse punishment.

Norm Mahoney, 69, the former drug education coordinator for the Coeur d’Alene School District, said the “terrible” details of the Duncan case haven’t moved him from his opposition to the death penalty.

“I guess I feel about it as strongly as everybody,” he said of the killings. “I feel very violated. The effect it has had on the community as a whole is far-reaching.”

According to court records, Duncan singled out the Groene family because he glimpsed Shasta playing in the front yard while she was wearing a swimming suit.

“The randomness of it is very frightening,” Mahoney said. “We react to fear by upgrading security. There is an immediate knee-jerk reaction for that type of thing. But I have a hard time justifying the death penalty, even in a case like this. And I certainly understand the feelings.”

Nancy Nelson, co-director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, said the details of the crime shouldn’t be used to justify the death penalty.

“We all have those feelings of revenge,” Nelson said. “But as a society, we hope to act on a higher plane.

“Clearly he is a psychopath, but that does not mean we have a right to take his life,” she added. “I think we would all agree that we want less violence in this country. We will not achieve that by perpetrating more violence.”

Nelson said she doesn’t believe that Duncan would have previously raped had he not been sexually abused as a child.

“A friend of mine often asks, ‘When does that broken child stop being the victim and become the perpetrator?’ It’s the community’s responsibility,” she said. “We are responsible for Dylan and Shasta. And we are responsible for Duncan. That’s what we need to face.”

But for some, Duncan’s crimes are so malicious and frightening that the death penalty is the first thought to cross their minds.

As long as Duncan wasn’t mentally insane, Shelly Fewel of Richland believes he should die.

Reading a book on the boardwalk surrounding the Coeur d’Alene Resort Marina, Fewel said being a mother makes her both compassionate and tough.

“If the guy has a medical problem, he does need medical help,” she said. “But, as a mom, I would like to hang the guy myself. I have no compassion for the man if he did what he did.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email