April 28, 2006 in Idaho

Groene backs life sentence

James Hagengruber And Taryn Broadwater Staff writers
 
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Steve Groene has asked for the death penalty case to be withdrawn against the man accused of kidnapping his daughter and murdering his two sons last year, Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said. Instead, Joseph E. Duncan III would face a life sentence if convicted of the murders.

But Douglas said he plans to continue to push for Duncan’s death.

“It’s too sudden for us to change course,” Douglas said, adding that relatives from two other victims killed in last year’s attack at a Wolf Lodge Bay home continue to support the death penalty.

“We need to consider their feelings and input, too,” Douglas said.

Duncan, 43, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and kidnapping for the May bludgeoning deaths of Brenda Groene, her son, 13-year-old Slade Groene, and her boyfriend, Mark McKenzie. Duncan also faces federal charges for kidnapping 8-year-old Shasta Groene and 9-year-old Dylan Groene, and for Dylan’s subsequent slaying at a primitive campsite in the Bitterroot Mountains of Western Montana.

Steve Groene has long been firm in his belief that Duncan should face death for his alleged crimes. On Saturday, at a rally near Seattle, he repeated that he thinks Duncan “more than deserves” the death penalty, and other violent sex offenders “ought to be taken out and shot on sight.”

But cancer has returned to Groene’s throat. He faces radical surgery within a month and a very uncertain future. At the rally Saturday, Groene declined to say if he would support a plea agreement for Duncan.

In a phone conversation Tuesday, Groene told Douglas he had a change of heart and now worries that a lengthy death penalty trial, in which Shasta might have to testify and face Duncan, would only take from his ability to spend “quality time” with his daughter, Douglas said. Groene also expressed fear that he might not live long enough for the punishment to be carried out.

Duncan has also been linked to the deaths of three other children in Seattle and Southern California. Douglas said Groene urged him to work with prosecutors in these jurisdictions to “come to some sort of agreement” on putting the cases to rest. Douglas said this could be an “impossible task.”

Groene could not be reached for comment Thursday. He spent a portion of the day sharing his thoughts with crusading television personality Geraldo Rivera, who had traveled to Coeur d’Alene for the interview. His syndicated TV show does not air on the Fox affiliate serving the Spokane or Coeur d’Alene markets.

A plea bargain, in which Duncan might agree to admit guilt in exchange for life in prison, is not acceptable to Steve McKenzie, brother of victim Mark McKenzie. Douglas should stand firm in seeking the death penalty, Steve McKenzie said.

“The guy has spent most of his life in prison. To him, getting life in prison is like going home,” Steve McKenzie said.

In 1980, Duncan raped a 14-year-old boy in Tacoma at gunpoint. He pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree rape and was sent to prison “for a term not to exceed 20 years.” He was released in 1994 and sent back to prison in 1997 for a range of parole violations. He completed the full term of his prison sentence in 2000.

McKenzie believes Duncan must face death if convicted of last year’s murders.

“Brenda was real cool. Slade was a great kid. Everybody loved Dylan,” he said. “My brother – he was my brother. I don’t want to plea bargain.”

Brenda Groene’s family also could not be reached for comment. But Douglas said the family also remains supportive of the death penalty for Duncan.

Douglas said he hopes to meet with all the family members in the next week. “We are willing to listen, but we need to hear from everybody.”

A rift between the family members over the preferred route to justice puts Douglas in a tough position. The matter is complicated further with Steve Groene’s renewed battle with cancer. Douglas said he has been talking to Groene weekly for the past six months.

“I pray for Steve’s health every day and for his entire family. We feel very, very badly about his deteriorating health condition,” Douglas said.

Douglas said he plans to call Shasta, now 9, as a witness in the death penalty trial, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 16. This could mean Shasta would have to face Duncan in court.

“We will and still plan to call Shasta as an identification witness,” Douglas said, adding that he has “very serious crimes I have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. … It’s our impression Shasta will help us in meeting that burden of proof.”

Douglas added further, “She’s a critical, essential witness. … The criminal justice system requires that even young victims must tell their story.”

Douglas lashed out at those who say the death penalty is inappropriate no matter the crime. “Those folks should have the guts to go to the state Legislature. Otherwise, prosecutors like myself are obligated to apply Idaho law,” he said. “Don’t ask prosecutors to not apply it in cases like this. I’m obligated to carry out the law.”


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