With the sentencing phase of the federal death penalty case against confessed murderer Joseph Duncan drawing to a close, it bears reviewing what is at stake. Either Duncan will be put to death in 10 to 20 years if a jury gives him a death sentence, or he could die in custody if he is given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
All of the legal issues being fought over now would be moot if the case had ended when the Kootenai County prosecutor’s office agreed to a plea bargain almost 24 months ago that waived the death penalty but ensured that Duncan would never go free again. That deal meant that a sexually abused Shasta Groene, then 8, would not have to testify about the heinous crimes she witnessed.
Life in prison could very well end up being the sentence, and prosecutors should think long and hard about whether that might be the best outcome in such cases. Even if the feds fail to gain the death penalty, prosecutors in Riverside County, Calif., are waiting for their turn. Duncan has acknowledged killing a young boy there in 1997.
The current case provides ample examples for why death penalty cases are ultimately not worth it. While there might be possible positive outcomes for the careers of prosecutors and politicians, the promised benefits for the victims’ families and society are suspect.
Justice, closure and catharsis are often cited as reasons to pursue executions, but death-penalty cases necessarily delay the payoffs because the courts must be sure that errors didn’t lead to such an irreversible punishment. The time and expense are enormous. That’s why the state of Idaho has executed only one person since the death penalty was reinstated 35 years ago. The federal government has executed three people since Congress reinstituted the penalty in 1988.
Plus, it is highly questionable that anyone is emotionally cleansed after an execution. It’s compassionate to think that they might be, but it’s probably a false hope. Shasta Groene is now 11. By the time she graduates from high school, the Duncan case could still be in the courts. For most of her childhood she would be connected to him in headlines. And it could go on from there.
She may still have to testify in the federal case to help prosecutors prove that aggravating factors merit the death penalty because she was the lone witness to Duncan’s murderous depravity. If she averts testimony in Boise, she might be compelled to testify in California. Numerous psychological experts have noted that even if she doesn’t testify, she could be damaged by ongoing prosecutions.
Joseph Duncan will die in custody. No question about that. The only remaining suspense is whether a little girl is further harmed in the pursuit of an execution.
We hope the message in future prosecutions is that it isn’t worth it.