May 9, 2006 in Idaho

Groene plea reaches feds

Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press
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A request by the father of Shasta Groene to drop the possibility of the death penalty in the state murder trial of Joseph Edward Duncan III also has reached the ears of federal prosecutors.

Steve Groene has asked Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas not to seek the death penalty for Duncan in the state’s triple murder trial. Now, federal authorities also are discussing a plea deal, a source said Monday.

Duncan is charged with killing Shasta’s mother, older brother and her mother’s boyfriend last year so he could kidnap the girl, then 8, and her 9-year-old brother for sex. Shasta’s brother, Dylan, was slain at a primitive campground in Montana. Shasta was rescued at a Denny’s restaurant in Coeur d’Alene last summer after seven weeks of captivity.

Duncan has been charged only in state court, but federal prosecutors have said they intend to charge him with kidnapping the children and killing Dylan, crimes that can carry the death penalty, when the state case concludes. Trial is set for Oct. 16 on the state charges.

“The victims can be assured we are listening carefully to them and are considering their wishes,” Marc Haus, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boise, said Monday. “We also are discussing their concerns with Kootenai County and the Department of Justice in Washington.”

In addition to Haus’ comments, another Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said negotiations are under way with Duncan’s lawyers and are at a critical stage. Some victims’ relatives want Duncan to face the death penalty if convicted, the source said.

Any deal likely would require Duncan to disclose any other crimes he was involved in, the source said. Duncan, 43, is considered a suspect in the disappearance of at least three other children.

John Adams, Duncan’s public defender, has said his client might be open to a plea agreement if the death penalty is off the table. That would spare Shasta, the sole survivor of the attack on her family’s home, the trauma of years of court testimony.

Adams said Steve Groene’s wishes should carry considerable weight.

“Steve Groene is a strong, mature adult,” Adams said. “He is doing what he thinks is best for his family. That should be recognized.”

Groene has had a recurrence of throat cancer and said that uncertainty about his future, and a desire to protect his daughter from exposure to Duncan in court, motivated his request. Groene also said a plea bargain might induce Duncan to reveal other crimes he might have committed.

Adams declined to say if Duncan would consider offering information in exchange for a plea agreement.

Duncan, a Tacoma native, is a convicted sex offender whose arrest last year prompted lawmakers in several states to stiffen penalties against sexual predators.

Published reports after Duncan’s arrest last July said he had admitted killing two young girls in the Seattle area in 1996, although authorities have not confirmed that.

The King County sheriff’s department is reviewing the July 1996 kidnapping and slaying of Carmen Cubias, 9, and Sammiejo White, 11, from the Crest Motel on North Aurora Avenue in Seattle.

Investigators in Riverside County, Calif., last August said they had matched Duncan’s fingerprints to the 1997 homicide scene of a 10-year-old California boy.

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