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Steve Groene says time running out

Tue., March 20, 2007

BOISE – Steve Groene told a federal court Monday that he’s dying of throat cancer – and if Joseph Duncan’s trial is put off for a year and a half, as the defense has requested, Groene’s daughter Shasta may have no parent to support her through the trial.

“Cancer is a deadly disease,” Groene told U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, speaking in the electronic monotone of a mechanical voice box. “There are no guarantees I’ll be around in August of ‘08.”

Duncan faces the death penalty for allegedly kidnapping and molesting Shasta and her 9-year-old brother, Dylan, and for Dylan’s death in 2005. He’s already been convicted in state court of killing Shasta’s mother, older brother and mother’s fiance in a bloody attack at their home near Coeur d’Alene when Shasta was 8 years old.

Federal prosecutors want Duncan’s trial to start this July, but the defense has asked to put it off until August 2008. The girl is described in court documents as “an essential witness” in the federal case.

“My daughter’s been through enough,” Steve Groene told the court. “She should have the right to get it done and get this over with. It is obviously something that affects her on a daily basis. I believe she deserves to … try and put that behind her.”

Groene’s mostly white hair is now shaved close to his head. He wore a dark shirt and neat jeans, and dabbed at his mouth with a cloth as he left the witness stand.

“The biggest question in my mind is whether I have another year and a half,” he told the court. “I hope that I do, because I’ve lost a lot of time with my daughter.”

Defense attorneys argued that without a delay, they won’t have time to adequately prepare their case – and then any verdict could get overturned, resulting in another trial.

“What’s the effect on this child if you set a date that would end up being a reversal because we were not prepared?” federal defender Roger Peven asked the court, noting that Shasta could have to endure a second trial.

He added, “Giving us time to prepare may mean there is no trial, there is no need for it. … Give us time – we may reach settlement.”

Duncan was present in the courtroom, mostly looking down at the table as the attorneys talked. After spending months in a Boise prison, his once-wispy hair is now long enough that it was combed back smoothly and secured in a knot at the back of his neck. The convicted murderer sat impassively through much of the proceeding.

Peven said the timing of the case – the federal case started after the state case concluded in Kootenai County – meant the defense hasn’t had adequate time to prepare. “If this case were filed in July 2005, it would be over by now,” he said. “If it were not a death case, it would be over tomorrow.”

Duncan pleaded guilty in October to three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of kidnapping related to the killings of Brenda Matthews Groene, Mark McKenzie and 13-year-old Slade Groene. The family’s two youngest children were kidnapped after those slayings; only Shasta was found alive, with Duncan, six weeks later.

Under Duncan’s plea deal on the state charges, Shasta was spared from testifying in that case. If Duncan doesn’t receive the death penalty in the federal case, the deal requires him to return to Kootenai County to face a possible death penalty there.

Duncan’s attorneys had previously offered another plea deal, rejected by Kootenai County prosecutors, in which he would have pleaded guilty to all federal and state charges in exchange for removing the possibility of the death penalty in the state case.

Duncan also has been charged in the killing of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez in California, a 1997 case in which he could face the death penalty.

Mark Larranaga, another of Duncan’s attorneys and a death penalty case specialist, said he was just appointed to the case Jan. 26 and needs to review 40,000 pages of documents and more than 120 computer discs of evidence handed over by prosecutors. If the trial were to start in July and he were to work 40 hours a week until then, he said, “We would be required to read 60 pages per hour and review over 70 hours of video – that’s just to review one time the government’s case.”

He said, “If we are not given the appropriate and reasonable time to do it, this case, like many others, will be reversed.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Traci Whelan called the defense’s arguments about how long prosecutors waited to file the federal case “offensive.”

“Would you have two parallel proceedings going so that you have our child victim being prepped for court about the murder of her mother and her brother and Mr. McKenzie at the same time that she’s being prepared for this?” she asked.

Judge Lodge told the court that both sides’ arguments have merit. “The court’s going to have to make a decision that’s fair and reasonable under the circumstances,” he said.

The judge said he’ll notify both sides of his decision “in a very short period of time.”

John Sahlin, the court-appointed guardian ad litem for Shasta Groene, spoke in favor of the prosecution’s motion to start the trial in July. “Not one of us in this team believes it serves this child’s best interest to continue this trial to 2008,” he said.

The prosecution cited a federal law requiring courts to consider “the age of the child and the potential adverse impact the delay may have on the child’s well-being,” while the defense pointed to Duncan’s Sixth Amendment right to have the assistance of counsel.

Whelan told the court, “Everybody wants this trial done. … Their obligation is to their client. Our obligation is to the people.”

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