Jury selection in the triple-murder trial of Joseph Edward Duncan III has been canceled, fueling speculation that a plea deal has been reached with Kootenai County prosecutors.
Kootenai County sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger issued a brief statement late Sunday, saying that instead of jury selection, a 9 a.m. hearing will be held today in front of District Judge Fred Gibler.
“There is a hearing. … I’m not allowed to talk about it,” said Lee McKenzie Wood, mother of victim Mark McKenzie, who was killed along with two other people at Wolf Lodge Bay last year. Last week, McKenzie Wood told The Spokesman-Review she opposed any deal: “This man does not deserve to live. He needs to be put away.”
The Associated Press is reporting this morning that a deal has been reached, citing an anonymous source. Reports of a plea deal also surfaced on Fox News late Sunday, but they offered no attribution or details. On Friday, Public Defender John Adams indicated at a court hearing that plea negotiations were ongoing.
Neither Adams nor Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas could be reached for comment late Sunday.
Douglas rejected a plea offer Duncan made on Oct. 4.
Duncan had offered to plead guilty to four murders, kidnapping and other crimes in exchange for life in prison with no chance of parole. Even if Douglas had accepted the deal, Duncan acknowledged he might face the death penalty in a pending federal case.
Duncan also offered to help investigators open his encrypted computer files and view pictures and videos that may be related to the case.
His plea offer would have kept 9-year-old Shasta Groene from having to testify, federal Public Defender Roger Peven said last week.
Duncan is accused of the May 2005 murders of McKenzie, his fiancee Brenda Matthews Groene and her 13-year-old son, Slade, at their home near Wolf Lodge Bay east of Coeur d’Alene.
Under the deal, he also would have admitted kidnapping Shasta and her older brother, Dylan Groene, from the home as well as crimes he committed against the children, including killing Dylan.
Duncan has yet to be charged with those crimes, but federal prosecutors have said they intend to seek the death penalty.
Although Duncan asked Douglas not to seek the death penalty and to agree to the life sentence, Duncan also would have pleaded guilty in a federal death penalty case, Peven said last week. The case could then proceed to the sentencing hearing, he said.
Two of Kootenai County’s three county commissioners have urged Douglas to settle the case. Not only is the trial expected to cost the county $1 million or more, but Commissioners Rick Currie and Katie Brodie have said they are concerned about the effect on Shasta.