December 7, 2007 in Idaho

Shasta won’t need to testify

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
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BOISE – Shasta Groene won’t have to testify in federal court against killer Joseph Duncan under an agreement reached by both sides in the case.

“The parties will stipulate that S.G. will not be called as a witness at the capital sentencing hearing,” federal prosecutors wrote in a motion filed with the court this week. “Her testimony will be presented by statements she made to law enforcement officers in July 2005.”

Duncan’s attorneys filed a motion supporting the move. “This is a brave little girl who has been an inspiration to all of us,” said Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas. “And it is certainly a relief to all of us here in the community that she will not have to testify.”

Duncan, 44, is the suspected serial killer who has admitted to kidnapping Shasta, then 8, and her brother, 9-year-old Dylan, in 2005 from their home near Coeur d’Alene, after first murdering the children’s mother, 13-year-old brother and mother’s fiancé. Duncan, a sex offender from Tacoma, admitted he went on his rampage with the intent of kidnapping the two youngsters, whom he then molested repeatedly and held captive for weeks before killing Dylan.

Shasta was rescued after employees and customers at a Denny’s restaurant in Coeur d’Alene spotted her with Duncan, nearly seven weeks after the initial attack and killings. Duncan faces a possible death penalty on three counts related to his kidnapping and killing of Dylan. Shasta was the only witness to those events and had been identified in court papers as “an essential witness” whose testimony was “necessary.”

Last year, Duncan pleaded guilty in state court to killing the children’s mother, Brenda Matthews Groene; her fiancé, Mark McKenzie; and 13-year-old Slade Groene. He’s serving a life term in prison on kidnapping charges in those slayings, but hasn’t been sentenced for the three murders. Under a plea deal, if Duncan isn’t sentenced to death on the federal charges involving the younger children, he’ll return to Kootenai County to face a death penalty hearing in those killings.

Duncan also is a suspect in child killings in Southern California and the Seattle area.

The federal charges focus on an interstate crime – the killer took the children from their home near Coeur d’Alene into Montana, where he held them captive in Lolo National Forest.

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge this fall set the federal trial for January. But on Monday, Duncan entered guilty pleas to all 10 charges in that indictment, including three capital offenses.

Lodge accepted the pleas and set penalty proceedings, for which a federal jury will be impaneled, for Jan. 28, the date Duncan originally was to have gone to trial. Now, the prosecution and defense want the death penalty hearings put off until at least April.

Lawyers on both sides are prohibited from talking about it under a court-issued gag order. In their motion, prosecutors said it was worth the trade-off of a delay to April to relieve Shasta from having to testify.

Defense attorneys asked for a longer delay, to September. They said they’ve been hampered in preparing for Duncan’s defense – and in particular, researching his background to find “mitigating” factors to defend him against the death penalty – by “performance problems” involving the former lead defense attorney, federal defender Roger Peven.

Duncan’s attorneys said Peven hadn’t lined up expert witnesses and had organized no index of the voluminous documents in the case. “In the face of Mr. Peven’s acknowledged performance problems, he first sought a reduced role, and eventually attempted to withdraw from this case,” the attorneys wrote. “Though two motions to withdraw have been denied, it is painfully clear that former lead counsel is unavailable to participate in any role in this case, and has been unavailable for some time.”

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