BOISE - Notorious multiple murderer Joseph Duncan was back in a Boise courtroom on Friday morning, as lawyers and a federal judge wrangled over setting a date for a new hearing into whether Duncan was mentally competent when he waived appeals of his triple death sentence for torturing and murdering a 9-year-old North Idaho boy.
Duncan, brought to Boise from federal Death Row in Terre Haute, Ind., his hair close-cropped and graying and wearing a baggy white T-shirt, left all the talking to his attorneys on Friday morning. But in December of 2010, he submitted a hand-written, two-page letter to the court saying he now wants to appeal after all.
Duncan in the past has strongly opposed contentions that he wasn’t mentally competent to make that decision in 2008. He underwent two lengthy mental evaluations before U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge ruled him competent and allowed him to dismiss his lawyers in that sentencing trial and represent himself; he already had pleaded guilty to all charges. The lawyers filed an appeal to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals against Duncan’s wishes, arguing he was mentally incompetent.
“I have been very stubborn about not appealing my death sentence,” the condemned killer wrote. “My belief is that if I appeal, then I am acknowledging the system’s authority to commit murder.”
But he wrote that more recently, his younger brother had died, making Duncan his mother’s only surviving son. “It would be utterly cruel, and indeed, inhuman, for me not to consider my mother’s love when deciding what to do in regard to my own life,” Duncan wrote. “So I hereby inform you, and any others concerned, that I withdraw my waiver of appeal, and consent fully to all efforts and advice given by my attorneys to appeal.”
He added, “I love my mother, and if I could only regret one thing, it would be how I have hurt her. I am the biggest fool that I know.”
In 2008, a federal jury sentenced Duncan to death for the kidnap, torture and murder of 9-year-old Dylan Groene. He also received nine life sentences for a murderous rampage in 2005, in which he killed three members of Dylan’s family in order to kidnap and molest the family’s two youngest children; only Dylan’s then-8-year-old sister, Shasta, survived.
Since then, Duncan also has been convicted of kidnapping and murdering a 10-year-old California boy, drawing two more life sentences; in that case, after weeks of expert testimony, the court ruled him mentally competent.
In the Idaho case, however, the judge never held a competency hearing in open court, meaning all the information on Duncan’s mental competency remained secret. The 9th Circuit ruled that without such a hearing, there was “reasonable doubt” about Duncan’s competency, and ordered Lodge to hold a “retrospective” competency hearing on Duncan’s mental state in 2008.
If, after the hearing, Lodge rules that Duncan was competent when he waived his right to appeal, the death sentence stands. But if not, Lodge would then have to hold another hearing to determine if Duncan was mentally competent when he waived his right to an attorney in his 2008 sentencing trial and instead represented himself. That could force a replay of the whole sentencing trial.
In his closing statement in that trial in 2008, Duncan told the jury, “You people really don’t have any clue yet of the true heinousness of what I’ve done.” While on the run from a child-molesting charge in Minnesota in 2005, Duncan said he’d plotted terrible crimes targeting random children, from invading day-care centers to kidnappings at campgrounds. “I was not searching for a child but rather I was on a rampage,” he said. “My intention was to kidnap and rape and kill until I was killed, preferring death easily over capture.”
He traveled across eight states looking for child victims before attacking the Groene family in their home along I-90 at Wolf Lodge, just east of Coeur d’Alene.
On Friday, federal defender Dick Rubin told the court that Duncan now wants to be represented by an attorney for the competency hearing, and said Duncan shouldn’t answer any questions until his new attorney is appointed. He asked the court to appoint Michael Burt of San Francisco, a death penalty defense attorney who specializes in cases involving mental health.
However, Burt told the court Friday that he has another trial in the fall, and wouldn’t be available for Duncan’s competency hearing until December. Lodge had asked the attorneys to be ready for the hearing by this July, but prosecutors said they had other cases and wouldn’t be ready until October.
“The court’s not going to agree to that,” Lodge said. “This … has drug on. Memories get faulty.” He told the attorneys for both sides, “October-November is the latest. How you work that out is up to you.”
Calling a two-week recess, Lodge said, “We’re going to get the matter resolved.”