Editor’s note: This story contains explicit descriptions of severe abuse of a child.
BOISE – On the screen, a child screamed in pain, and his tormentor raved.
“The devil is here, boy, the devil himself … The devil likes to watch children suffer and cry!” a naked Joseph Duncan shouted in a video he made in a decrepit, abandoned cabin in a Montana forest.
Shifting uncomfortably in their seats, jurors saw three horrific, graphic videos Thursday of Duncan sexually assaulting and torturing 9-year-old Dylan Groene, whom he later murdered. The videos were among the final pieces of evidence prosecutors presented to press their case that Duncan should die for his crimes.
This morning, prosecutors and Duncan, who is representing himself, will give their closing arguments in the first phase of the sentencing trial. The jury then will deliberate on whether Duncan is eligible for a death sentence. If they’re unanimous on that, the second phase will begin, to determine whether Duncan will be executed or sentenced to life without parole for the abduction, abuse and murder of Dylan and the abduction and abuse of his younger sister, Shasta Groene, in 2005.
Duncan objected to the showing of the videos. Before the jury was brought in for the viewing, he said, “Basically this video will be turning the jurors into my victims, so I will be tried not by a jury of peers, but of victims.”
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge responded, “Objection noted, denied.”
Nothing previously presented in court could have prepared viewers for the level of violence in the videos.
The videos showed Duncan sexually abuse the child, hang him from a wire noose, and beat him with a loop of what looked like wire as the boy screamed.
At one point, Duncan tries to revive Dylan and promises to take him to a hospital, although that never happened. He claims both to have killed and saved the child, and at one point starts singing the Lord’s Prayer in a high voice, interrupting himself after “Thy will be done,” to shout, “Can this be your will? … You put people on the earth to do this – how can you do this? How can you let me? God, where are you? Show yourself!”
As the videos played, one juror turned away and shielded her eyes with her hand, looked back again and then turned away again, her face contorted. Another covered her mouth with a tissue, sobbing silently. Some glanced at Duncan, who watched intently on the monitor in front of him, closed his eyes, or covered his eyes and forehead with his hand, looking pained.
Father’s motion denied
Steve Groene, the children’s father, entered the courtroom before the video began and angrily gestured for onlookers in the last two rows to leave, although they didn’t. Groene left, but erupted outside the courtroom doors, threatening to place anyone who watched the videos under citizen’s arrest for viewing child pornography.
Groene had filed an emergency motion seeking to restrict the showing of the videos; the judge said Thursday that the court had “respectfully considered” the motion, but he denied it.
Lodge did take several steps to address Groene’s concerns, including banning all cell phones and other electronic devices from the courtroom to make sure no one could record the video; blocking windows in the courtroom door and having spectators outside move away; and moving everyone in the audience to the side that wasn’t directly in front of the courtroom’s large viewing screen.
“The court is sensitive to the family’s interest in maintaining their privacy and the dignity of the victim,” Lodge wrote in an order denying Groene’s motion. “However, ours is an open judicial system.”
Before the videos were shown, a roof beam from the cabin, the wire noose still attached, was wheeled out in a large glass case and shown to jurors. Testing showed Dylan’s DNA on the wire.
Jurors also were shown floorboards from the cabin, taken from just under the noose, which testing showed were stained with semen.
1980 victim testifies
After the videos were shown, the proceedings moved directly to the next witness, a uniformed military officer. Drained jurors shifted in their seats, and passed a box of tissues.
The man, a high-ranking naval officer, testified that in January 1980, he was a 14-year-old eighth-grader in Tacoma who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by Duncan, who was 16.
The officer gave a clear and detailed account of the crime, which was similar to Duncan’s abuse of Dylan. “It was 28 years ago. That’s a long time,” the officer told the court. “I did a whole lot of trying to forget.”
The Spokesman-Review does not normally identify victims of sexual assault. The search for the Groene children was so heavily publicized that their names were widely known.
After his testimony, the prosecution rested its case. Duncan was escorted to the witness stand, because he said he planned to testify on his own behalf. Instead, Duncan said, “I have no statement prepared, I was just intending to sit and answer whatever questions the government might have.”
Under court rules, cross-examination can’t go beyond what the witness has said on direct testimony. Because Duncan hadn’t said anything, prosecutors couldn’t ask him anything.
Duncan will have another opportunity to speak in closing arguments today.