Coeur d’Alene attorney John Sahlin became disenchanted with the legal process early in his career.
He specialized in family law, an area he said many attorneys consider “one of the least rewarding areas of practice.” That was the experience he had.
“Mom or dad wins, but kids always lose,” Sahlin said. “That’s so often the case. The kids were not represented. That really began to wear on me.”
Sahlin began looking for ways to make the legal process better for children – a years-long journey that has culminated in his appointment as 9-year-old Shasta Groene’s guardian ad litem.
His role is to make recommendations to the court about what’s in Shasta’s best interest, and to coordinate the resources and services available to her as a crime victim.
Sahlin was appointed as Shasta’s court guardian under federal law because of pending federal charges against Joseph Edward Duncan III for allegedly kidnapping and sexually abusing the girl. Duncan also is expected to be charged in federal court for kidnapping and killing Shasta’s brother, Dylan.
That case isn’t expected to be filed until after the state tries Duncan in the deaths of Shasta’s mother, Brenda Groene; her mother’s boyfriend, Mark McKenzie; and her 13-year-old brother, Slade. Unless a plea agreement is reached – Shasta’s father, Steve Groene, supports such a move – the trial is set to begin in October.
Though some states have parallel statutes for criminal cases, Idaho law only provides for guardian ad litems in civil suits.
Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said Sahlin’s input has been invaluable. “We’ll always listen,” Douglas said. “We may not always agree on certain approaches to a case.”
Sahlin said it’s the “good graces and professional integrity of those involved in the state case” that have allowed him to become involved at this stage.
His position could put him at odds with others, he said.
“I might have interests on behalf of my client that are not congruent with the interests of the defense or the prosecution,” he said.
He weighed in last fall when Kootenai County Public Defender John Adams asked for more time before trial. The testimony was given in the judge’s chambers and the record sealed.
Sahlin said he’s not allowed to discuss particulars of the case.
Shasta’s father recently asked Douglas and prosecutors in yet-to-be-filed cases against Duncan to negotiate plea agreements that would spare his daughter from testifying.
Other family members are adamant that Douglas continue to seek the death penalty, saying Shasta is able to testify.
Sahlin said he couldn’t say what he thought was best for Shasta, only about child victims in general and the impact of their traumatic experiences.
“Based on the research I’ve done, which is fairly extensive, the trial experience itself may or may not be traumatic to the child,” he said. “It may have the effect of empowering the child, which is a good thing. Or re-traumatizing the child, which is a bad thing.”
In children’s brains – which are still developing – Sahlin said trauma “has the effect of reorganizing brain structure.”
“A traumatic event forces brain growth and neurological connections around that traumatic event,” he said.
Memories of an event can be triggered in subtle and unpredictable ways, he said. It could be the coming of a season, the smell of gunpowder or even the aroma of macaroni and cheese if it was cooking at the time, he said.
The effects are long-lasting, he said.
“The response kids are adapted to is to shut down,” he said. “What that looks like to an observer is that they’re doing OK.”