October 19, 2008 in Idaho

Duncan juror faces daily trials

Foreman says horrors of case have changed him forever
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 
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BOISE – The foreman of the jury that sentenced killer and child molester Joseph Duncan to death in August has “no regrets” about the unanimous verdict, which jurors reached in just three hours.

“To me, the evidence was overwhelming,” said Chris Robbins, speaking publicly about his experience for the first time. “I truly have no regrets about the decision we made. … I hope that our decision stands and I hope that his time on death row is limited.”

The young father and health care worker was immersed in the dark, sadistic world of Joseph Duncan for nearly a month, spending lonely nights in a Boise hotel 120 miles from his family, whom he saw only on weekends. Watching the Olympics on TV was the only distraction. Forbidden to talk about the horrors he saw in court each day, even to other jurors, he spent “a lot of sleepless nights in Boise.”

He felt anger, horror and disgust as he sat across from Duncan in court and learned the story of his crimes, in all their graphic detail. Jurors learned and saw how Duncan tortured and killed a 9-year-old boy, Dylan Groene, after first murdering three other family members so he could kidnap and molest Dylan and his 8-year-old sister, Shasta.

The experience changed Robbins, who came into the courtroom confident and ready to do his civic duty. He’s far more suspicious of strangers these days and far more protective of children, both his own and his neighbors’. He watches for strange cars on his cul-de-sac. He checks the sex offender registry regularly.

“When the U.S. government started giving the evidence and the circumstances behind it, it blew me away,” he said. “You don’t think that people like that really existed. … Circumstances like that change you forever, and maybe that’s for the good.”

In an unusual move, the court offered counseling to all the jurors to help them cope with what they’d learned.

Tom Moss, U.S. attorney for Idaho, said, “Of all the cases I’ve ever prosecuted, no jury has had to step up and deal with what this jury dealt with, and they did it. … It’s a great service they’ve performed.”

Robbins said there were times when he was so angry at the seemingly self-satisfied, smirking defendant that he was tempted to rush across the courtroom and attack Duncan. “It was very hard. It was that type of anger, and I’m not that type of person. But you get feeling that way.”

Worst of all, he said, was the graphic video of Duncan molesting and torturing Dylan. “I don’t think anybody could ever have been ready for that. It still makes me sick thinking about it. … That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life, the worst thing. … Your heart just goes out for that little boy.”

He feels deep sympathy for Steve Groene, father of Dylan, Shasta and Slade, 13, who was killed in Duncan’s attack at the family’s Wolf Bay Lodge home. “I couldn’t imagine going through what Mr. Groene has to go through,” he said, “because as a father you take it upon yourself to protect your family, and that opportunity was taken from him.”

The best moment of the case, Robbins said, was when Groene “came out and thanked us at the end, because I felt like we did justice for him and his family at that point.”

For Robbins, the experience has changed everything from how he lives his daily life to how he views national politics. “If one of our presidential candidates had stated the fact that, ‘I’m going to mandate a bill that sexual predators never see the light of day again, or never get out of jail,’ I’m voting for them – I don’t care what the other stances are,” the 29-year-old said with an amazed chuckle.

It’s even changed Robbins’ taste in entertainment. “I don’t care to see another R-rated movie in my whole life, I kid you not,” he said. “I saw that stuff first-hand. I don’t care to see that stuff.”

Targets looked like his neighborhood

During the sentencing trial, jurors watched, puzzled, as the government presented long and sometimes tedious evidence from Duncan’s GPS unit that showed where he’d marked locations across several states, which proved to be the homes of families with young children, day-care centers and school-bus stops. It all made sense when Duncan admitted in court that those were targets – places where he considered kidnapping, molesting and murdering children, before he seized upon the Groene family at their home near Coeur d’Alene.

Robbins noticed that the photos of the targets looked much like his own neighborhood.

“Who would’ve thought that if your child has a tricycle, and you’ve got your garage door open, and it happens to be right there – you wouldn’t think anything of it,” Robbins said. “But now, my garage stays shut. … That’s something I didn’t think about two months ago.”

He’s set up code words with his kids, to ensure that an unauthorized person can’t pick them up or masquerade as a friend. The case reinforced to him how defenseless children can be. “You need to not just worry about your own, but worry about everyone else’s, too. They can’t take care of themselves.”

He hopes his glimpse into Duncan’s world can provide lessons on how to protect children from such predators, and he wants to share those cautions with other parents. “I feel like I need to do that – I owe people that knowledge,” he said.

“I just hope to God people really watch out and keep their kids safe. sYou need to keep an eye on ’em, even though … you feel comfortable with them walking down the street to a friend’s house, the best thing to do is to walk with ’em down the street to the friend’s house.”

Duncan showed no remorse for his crimes, Robbins said, and plentiful evidence showed “that he wanted to get some sort of revenge toward society. Well, I don’t understand his following on that, because this society gave him a second chance.”

Duncan was imprisoned for years in Washington for raping a 14-year-old boy at gunpoint three decades ago, but eventually got out on parole, which he repeatedly violated – for which Robbins faults the Washington state judicial system. He’s horrified that Duncan’s friends, including a physician who gave him money for a lawyer that Duncan instead used to finance his crime spree, didn’t recognize the danger signs and report him.

He noted that in the graphic video, Duncan blamed God for his own actions. “When ultimately what Duncan needed to do was look in a mirror and blame himself. I don’t know his childhood, that’s not an excuse, if it was bad. I don’t know what happened to him in prison – that’s not an excuse. You have control of your life.”

Struggling to return to normal

In court, Robbins said, he often had the sense that Duncan was trying to fool the jurors, hinting that he wanted to die as “his way to manipulate us into not giving him what he wanted.” He also was offended by “sly little smirks” he saw the defendant direct toward female jurors.

Robbins watched Duncan closely when the jury’s verdicts were read in court – death on all three of the capital charges, a unanimous verdict.

“I saw once again a coward, a cocky man with a smirk on his face, thinking that he had pulled one over on society,” Robbins recalled, “thinking, ‘These guys aren’t going to give me what I want.’ ”

But, he said, “once those verdicts were laid down, all three counts, he turned about as white as a ghost, and all of a sudden the facial expressions were gone, and I feel that justice was served. … He looked like a dead man to me after we laid that down.”

Robbins said in his work, he sometimes sees people die on the operating table when he’s assisting with cardiac surgeries. “It’s a whole different kettle of tea when you see a 90-year-old die on the table because they had a massive heart attack, and you see a little boy die because of somebody’s, you know, obsession. It’s a whole different kettle of tea.”

Robbins was touched by the picture that emerged in court of who Dylan was. “He looked like an amazing kid that was going to bring something positive into this world, you just knew it,” he said. “For him not to be here and somebody that brought so much shame into this world, and so much negative, still to be around – it makes me sick.”

Robbins said he feels a special bond with the other members of the jury, which he said numbered 15, not 12 – three alternates had to sit through the entire case, and only found out just before deliberations that they wouldn’t be in on the decision.

Since the sentencing trial ended, Robbins has struggled to return to normal life. He’s relied on weight lifting, running and cycling to work out his stress.

“After being in there for three and a half weeks, you get back into the real world and get on with your routine of your life – it almost seems surreal,” Robbins said.

Still, he said, “It’s very hard to sleep at night, just because … of the fact that I feel I need to be alert for making sure that my family is protected.”

Robbins said he hopes cancer survivor Steve Groene’s health “continues to improve and that he can live a good life with his daughter.”

“I was glad for him to see this verdict, to be able to be there the day that happened. … I hope Shasta is able to get on with her life eventually, and really prosper.”

Robbins said he’s sorry for the family’s losses, and for the loss of innocence the crimes brought to the entire North Idaho community.

He added, “Mr. Groene said something, he was the very last witness. He said, ‘Don’t take any moment you can have with your kids for granted.’ And so that’s the way I approach that. If I have an opportunity to spend some time with my kids, I do it … because let’s face it, everything else is really irrelevant. I love what I do for a living, but in comparison with my kids, it’s really irrelevant.”

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