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Duncan mentally fit for sentencing, judge rules

BOISE – Convicted killer Joseph Duncan is competent enough to face death penalty proceedings for the murder of the North Idaho boy he abducted after slaying most of the 9-year-old’s family, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge ruled Thursday.

The ruling, in which Lodge said there’s “no bona fide doubt” about whether Duncan is mentally fit to proceed, clears the way for a hearing Monday on whether Duncan can act as his own attorney. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision gives the judge more latitude on that question, Lodge noted.

In Indiana v. Edwards, the high court ruled in June that the decision to allow a mentally ill defendant – even one determined to be competent to undergo court proceedings – to represent himself is “a matter resting in the sound discretion of the trial judge,” the judge noted.

The question facing the federal court now: Should Duncan be executed or be imprisoned without any possibility of release? The largest jury pool ever called in federal court in Idaho, more than 300 Southern Idaho residents, has been on hold since late April, ordered not to read any news reports about the case and to wait for further instructions.

Duncan has pleaded guilty to all charges in a 10-count federal indictment for kidnapping and molesting two North Idaho siblings and killing one, Dylan Groene. He awaits only sentencing. He also admitted to killing the children’s 13-year-old brother, mother and mother’s fiancé in a bloody attack at the family’s Wolf Lodge Bay home in 2005 so he could kidnap the two children.

Only Shasta Groene, then 8, survived the attack. She was rescued from Duncan seven weeks later when the two were spotted at a Coeur d’Alene restaurant.

The delays in the sentencing hearings started in April, when Duncan requested to sideline his court-appointed legal team and act as his own attorney, citing differences in “ideology.” Lodge ordered a mental evaluation to confirm that Duncan was competent to waive his right to an attorney.

Before the evaluation was completed, however, the defense filed a motion to declare Duncan incompetent – which, if successful, would have halted the sentencing proceedings until the defendant was declared fit. Defense attorneys submitted reports from their own mental health experts to support their argument. The judge ordered a second, more extensive mental evaluation, for which Duncan was sent to the Bureau of Prisons in Seattle for a 45-day observation.

That’s been completed. On Thursday, the judge said both court-ordered evaluations left no doubt that Duncan is competent to proceed in court. “No formal competency hearing is necessary in this case as there is no bona fide doubt about Mr. Duncan’s competency,” Lodge wrote in his order.

He added, “The evidence in the record in this case demonstrates that Mr. Duncan does not lack the present ability to rationally and factually understand the proceedings against him.”

The judge also wrote that he had reviewed Duncan’s communications, including letters, telephone transcripts and blogs, and they revealed “a level of intelligence more than sufficient to evidence his understanding of this proceeding and his competency to proceed.”

The issue of competency to undergo court proceedings involves the defendant’s current ability to participate in the proceedings, and doesn’t raise any question of insanity at the time of the crimes. Duncan’s guilty plea to his crimes stands regardless.

Lodge took note of the recent Supreme Court decision that changed the standard for when mentally ill defendants must be allowed to represent themselves in court. That decision says judges may find that some defendants are mentally competent to undergo court proceedings, but not to act as their own lawyers.

In light of that decision, Lodge wrote, if Duncan on Monday says he still wants to act as his own lawyer, the court may hold a “limited competency hearing to determine whether Mr. Duncan should be allowed to represent himself with standby counsel, or if it is necessary to order that he proceed with counsel to ensure the integrity and efficiency of a fair trial.”

Lodge repeatedly cited the recent Supreme Court decision as guiding the next steps he’ll take in Duncan’s case.

“The Court must therefore determine whether or not there are any unusual circumstances that would prevent the Defendant from having a fair trial if he were allowed to represent himself,” he wrote.

“Whether or not unusual circumstances exist is a matter resting in the sound discretion of the trial judge.”

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