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Duncan admits guilt

Joseph Duncan, left, pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree kidnapping in a brutal triple-murder in Wolf Lodge  in May 2005. 
 (Photos by KATHY PLONKA / The Spokesman-Review)
Joseph Duncan, left, pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree kidnapping in a brutal triple-murder in Wolf Lodge in May 2005. (Photos by KATHY PLONKA / The Spokesman-Review)

Justice and closure.

The words were repeated again and again Monday morning as investigators, attorneys and victims’ relatives reacted to Joseph Duncan’s admission that he murdered three members of a Coeur d’Alene-area family.

Lee McKenzie Wood said one word sums up what she felt about Monday’s plea deal, under which Duncan could still receive the death penalty: “Relief.”

As for closure, “It’s the beginning,” said McKenzie Wood, whose son Mark McKenzie was killed by Duncan. “Almost two years we’ve been sitting here fighting this thing, not able to accept that Duncan is sitting in jail … and we are the ones sitting at home, hurting so bad.”Duncan said “guilty” six times in a court hearing Monday morning: for using a hammer to kill McKenzie, Brenda Matthews Groene and her 13-year-old son, Slade, and for three kidnapping charges for binding the victims with duct tape and zip ties.

First District Judge Fred Gibler immediately sentenced Duncan to three consecutive terms of life on the kidnapping charges, with no chance of parole. He will stand trial in federal court for kidnapping the two youngest children – Dylan and Shasta – from the crime scene and for Dylan’s murder.

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. If they don’t succeed, Duncan will return to Kootenai County to face a state death sentence for the triple-slaying in May 2005.

Darlene Torres, the mother of Matthews Groene, said she wants her daughter’s killer to die. Monday’s plea deal permits that and is a move toward healing, but Torres said her family will never fully recover from the crimes.

“There’s never going to be closure for us,” said Torres, with tears in her eyes. “We miss them so bad. It’s never going to get that good. All we can do is move on.”

She said that if she could wish for anything, she would want her family back. “That’s not going to happen,” Torres said.

Steve Groene, father of the slain Groene children, couldn’t speak Monday. His vocal chords were recently removed due to throat cancer.

He wrote his reaction on a dry-erase board: “The Groene family wishes to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers. We feel this is the best possible outcome.”

Groene lobbied for months for a plea deal that would keep his daughter, now 9, from having to testify against Duncan.

Shasta was held captive by Duncan at a Montana campsite for six weeks after the murders at her family’s home and was the key witness in the state’s case against him. He repeatedly molested the girl, according to court records.

Monday’s plea agreement prevents Shasta from having to take the stand in the state case, even if a death penalty phase is necessary. She still could be called to testify in the federal case.

In place of her testimony, attorneys have agreed to use video and audio recordings of law enforcement interviews, including a video taken when Shasta returned to the Montana crime scene with investigators.

Shasta’s aunt, Sam Doble, said the family didn’t want Shasta to have to face Duncan, but they also didn’t want Duncan to lay eyes on the girl ever again.

“We felt it was a privilege for him to be able to see her one more time and we didn’t want that,” Doble said.

Monday’s hearing was the first time family members have faced Duncan in court since his arraignment in August 2005.

“It was hard sitting in the same room with him, that’s for sure,” said Shasta’s brother, Jesse Groene. “I’m glad he’ll never see the streets again.”

Torres described being in the courtroom with Duncan like “sitting in a room with the devil.”

Jesse Groene said he couldn’t say in public the kind of punishment he wished on Duncan.

“If we’d get ahold of him, he’d get what he deserves,” said Misty Cooper, Matthews Groene’s younger sister.

The 43-year-old defendant was led into a tiny courtroom adjoining the Kootenai County Jail about 9:15 a.m., cuffed at the wrists and ankles, and wearing a yellow shirt, brown sweater and khaki pants purchased by his federal public defender.

After Duncan was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs, the judge began the proceeding with a crisp “Good morning.” The bailiff then read the case, “State of Idaho v. Joseph Edward Duncan III, case number 05-13674.”

Kootenai County Public Defender John Adams asked the judge if Duncan’s handcuffs could be removed so he could help take notes. Duncan appeared somewhat nonchalant, sitting back in his chair and sipping water.

The judge said there were 10 points in the “binding plea agreement.” They included Duncan’s unconditional admission of guilt to the three murders and three counts of kidnapping for binding the victims before he bludgeoned them with a framing hammer.

He also agreed to a continuation of the sentencing phase on the state charges until after an upcoming trial in U.S. District Court for separate kidnapping charges related to taking Shasta and Dylan Groene across state lines into Montana. He has not yet been federally indicted, but that’s expected soon, authorities say.

The judge explained that if Duncan is not convicted and sentenced to death in federal court, he will be returned to Kootenai County for a death penalty phase for the triple-homicide.

The plea agreement also says that no witnesses need to be called at a death penalty phase and that Duncan will cooperate “fully and truthfully” with Kootenai County sheriff’s detectives, who have spent the past 17 months investigating the crime spree. He also will give his public defender his “password and keys” to encrypted computer files found on his computer in his vehicle after his arrest in Coeur d’Alene in July 2005, when Shasta was freed.

After reading the details of the agreement to Duncan, the judge said, “Do you have any question about them?”

“No I don’t,” Duncan responded.

His clean-shaven face showed little hint of emotion, even as he was sentenced to three life terms in prison and told he’s facing state and federal death sentences.

When Gibler asked Duncan if he wanted to make a statement, Duncan paused.

“I’ve thought a lot about what I’d say,” Duncan said. His lip and chin appeared to tremble. “I have nothing to say.”

The victims’ relatives said there isn’t anything Duncan could have said that would have made a difference.

“I think I would have stuck my fingers in my ears,” McKenzie Wood said. “He could get down on his hands and knees and beg forgiveness and it will never be done. He will never be forgiven.”

Adams said Duncan agreed to the plea deal mainly to avoid putting the families of the victims, “especially Steve Groene and (his daughter) Shasta Groene, through anymore.”

Federal Defender Roger Peven said that he met privately with Duncan before he entered his plea. “He was very emotional and very aware of the tragic results of his conduct,” said Peven, who will represent Duncan in the federal case.

Monday’s plea agreement was reached Sunday morning, Douglas said, after a weekend of negotiations in the case. Twenty-eight jurors were scheduled to show up Monday for what was to be the opening day of Duncan’s jury trial.

They were called late Sunday and told their services would not be needed Monday, Kootenai County sheriff’s spokesman Ben Wolfinger said.

Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said the case “has left deep scars on the community” and he called Monday’s plea deal a victory.

The prosecutor was subject to public criticism last week for rejecting a previous plea offer that would have eliminated any possibility of a death sentence in Kootenai County. Some family members wanted Duncan to face the death penalty in both cases, as insurance if one failed.

“We felt all along the death penalty was non-negotiable,” Douglas said.

A federal kidnapping and murder indictment is expected to be returned as early as today by a grand jury set to convene in Coeur d’Alene.

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