Joseph Edward Duncan will be tried in Kootenai County without two key pieces of evidence: The murder weapon and physical proof that in May 2005 he was in the Wolf Lodge home where he’s accused of having murdered three members of a local family.
The only eyewitness who can put Duncan in the family’s home at the time of the crimes is 9-year-old Shasta Groene, whose testimony is crucial in convicting the accused killer. Duncan’s trial starts Monday with jury selection.
Investigators never found the hammer used 17 months ago to bludgeon Shasta’s mother, brother and mother’s fiancé to death. But Shasta could offer testimony to a jury that she saw the hammer and saw Duncan in the home.
It’s not clear from available court documents exactly what Duncan’s defense will be. The insanity defense is not allowed in Idaho, although his attorneys tried earlier to challenge that.
Shasta told investigators that Duncan showed her the hammer as he held her and her brother captive at a remote Montana campsite. He even described to her how he used it to kill her family, she said.
The hammer, believed to be a Fat Max brand framing hammer, was reportedly purchased at a Lowe’s store in Missouri. Employees of the hardware store are on the list of witnesses that prosecutors could call to testify.
The marks on the head of the hammer match those found on the victims’ fractured skulls, according to court records.
Shasta also has the ability to place Duncan at the crime scene inside her family’s white cinderblock home about 10 miles east of Coeur d’Alene.
Investigators never found forensic evidence inside the home to prove Duncan was there, according to a source familiar with the case who provided background but asked not to be identified.
Shasta’s mother, Brenda Matthews Groene, awoke her the night of May 15 and brought the girl to the living room, according to court records. She urged her daughter to cooperate with the stranger who had entered the family’s home – a man Shasta has identified as Duncan.
Shasta told investigators she saw Mark McKenzie, her mother’s fiancé, in the living room, bound with plastic zip ties and duct tape. She said she watched Duncan bind her mother’s hands and feet and wrap duct tape around her head to gag her.
Duncan also bound and gagged the children and took Dylan and Shasta out of the house, Shasta said. He sat them in the grass near their swing set, she said, then went back inside.
Shasta described seeing her brother, Slade, coming out of the home, confused and bleeding badly. She said she and Dylan tried to get Slade’s attention so he could free them, but he wandered off.
She described hearing McKenzie, who wasn’t gagged, crying out from inside the home: “Ow, ow, ow.”
Shasta told investigators Duncan acted alone. She described the weapon he carried – a shotgun – and was able to sketch where the victims were when she last saw them in the home – the same places their bodies were found. Police found Slade lying facedown in a pool of blood inside the kitchen, next to his mother. McKenzie was found in the living room.
Investigators found a shotgun shell inside the home and, later, a shotgun in the stolen Jeep Duncan was driving. Authorities also found an empty package of zip ties, like the ones used to bind the victims, inside the Jeep.
Prosecutors have said Duncan’s motive for the killings was to kidnap Dylan and Shasta so he could sexually abuse them.
Little has been publicly disclosed about what happened in the weeks after Duncan allegedly kidnapped the children and held them captive at a remote Montana campsite, where Dylan was eventually killed and dismembered, his remains burned in a campfire.
Federal prosecutors have said once the triple-murder case concludes, they will charge Duncan for the kidnappings, Dylan’s murder and the production of child pornography. They are also seeking the death penalty.
Court proceedings in the state case have revealed that Duncan made graphic pornography of both children. What happened in Montana is so disturbing that counseling has been made available to those who have come face to face with the sordid details.
Shasta was found with Duncan at a Coeur d’Alene Denny’s early on the morning of July 2, 2005, more than six weeks after she was abducted from her home. Diners and waitstaff at the restaurant recognized the girl and called 911.
Christopher Donlan, who was at the restaurant that night with friends, and former Denny’s waitress Amber Deahn have been subpoenaed to testify at Duncan’s trial.
The prosecution filed a list of potential witnesses months ago that includes a number of law enforcement officers and detectives. Forensic examiners and FBI experts in firearms, tool marks, fingerprints, trace evidence and DNA, as well as a crime-scene diagrammer, may also be called to the stand.
Bob Hollingsworth, a neighbor who first reported something amiss at the home, may also testify. Hollingsworth went to the home on May 16, 2005, to pay Slade for mowing his yard.
“I went to the door and saw that door and that porch,” Hollingsworth said in an interview last spring. “I butcher lambs and I know what real blood looks like. I knew somebody had been murdered here.”
Duncan’s attorneys have yet to file a list of defense witnesses or experts who will testify on Duncan’s behalf. Visitor logs from the first few months of Duncan’s incarceration in Kootenai County revealed some possible defense witnesses.
Joyce Naffziger, a private investigator, has visited Duncan at the jail a number of times. She also interviewed many of Duncan’s friends, relatives and acquaintances, and has conducted a great deal of research on behalf of his attorneys, according to bills submitted to the county public defender’s office.
Naffziger testified in the 1999 trial of Kip Kinkel, an Oregon teen who killed his parents and two classmates. She testified that she had found many instances of mental illness in Kinkel’s extended family and that four of Kinkel’s cousins had been institutionalized.
Craig Beaver, a Boise neuro- psychologist, has also visited Duncan. Beaver has been called as a defense expert in many cases, including some Kootenai County cases in which Adams has provided defense.
In the case of Stephen A. Cherry, convicted in 1997 of killing his ex-girlfriend and wounding her boyfriend, Beaver testified that Cherry suffered from “severe borderline personality disorder.”
Judith V. Becker, an Arizona professor who has worked with sexual assault victims and abusers, has met with Duncan as well.
The judge in the Duncan case placed a gag order on the attorneys Thursday, meaning they are not to comment publicly as the trial gets under way.