BOISE – A prominent capital defense attorney who represented convicted killer Joseph Duncan during his death penalty hearing five years ago says Duncan’s bizarre beliefs “infected” their case.
Judy Clarke was part of a team of attorneys who represented Duncan in 2008, when he was sentenced to death after admitting he kidnapped and tortured two North Idaho children before killing one of them in Montana.
Clarke told U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge on Tuesday that she and the other attorneys didn’t realize the extent of Duncan’s mental problems when they first took the case. But she said they eventually understood that Duncan thought he was receiving revelations about his legal case through the television, books and once even through his mother’s decision to send a holiday package of sausage and cheese to him in jail.
Her testimony came as part of a retrospective competency hearing, ordered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to help Lodge determine if Duncan was mentally competent when he gave up his right to appeal his death sentence in 2008.
“His views infected the case,” Clarke said. She described Duncan as an intelligent client who could handle concrete facts and ideas well, but who also believed that by refusing to participate in his legal case he would lead mankind on a path to greater enlightenment.
Duncan has been attending the hearing and is being held at the Ada County jail in Boise.
His crimes are among the most gruesome in recent Idaho history, and he’s been convicted of five murders spanning three states.
He was convicted in Idaho state court of killing Slade and Brenda Groene and Mark McKenzie at their North Idaho home on a spring day in 2005 so he could kidnap 9-year-old Dylan Groene and Dylan’s 8-year-old sister. He took the two children into the remote Montana wilderness, where he tortured and abused them for weeks before killing Dylan and returning with the girl to Coeur d’Alene, where he was arrested. He also has been convicted of killing a boy in Riverside, Calif., in a separate case.
Duncan’s crimes against the two youngest children in the Idaho family were handled in federal court. He told his attorneys in that case, including Clarke, that he had planned to kill the 8-year-old girl while still in Montana and was about to bash her in the head with a rock when he had an “epiphany” and decided to let her live.
Duncan, who uses the nickname “Jet,” spoke frequently about that epiphany and his belief that he was a Jesus-like figure for the world, she said.
“The epiphany on the mountain, and (the girl) was a constant topic,” Clarke said. “The pure love that came from this enlightened child, who taught Jet so many things through her purity.”
Central to Duncan’s beliefs were that he shouldn’t participate in the legal case against him, because his words and those used by his attorneys on his behalf would prevent others from reaching the same level of enlightenment, Clarke said.
“Our ultimate problem was that the legal process was an impediment to the truth in Jet’s world,” Clarke said. “The words impeded the path to the truth. … Just as he had held the rock over the child’s head, the jury had the rock to hold over his head, and they had to decide whether to be enlightened like he was, whether to have their own epiphany.”
Duncan believed that the jurors’ epiphany would trigger an epiphany for all mankind, she said.
The risk of the death penalty wasn’t much of a concern for him, Clarke said.
“Execution is an illusion, and it wouldn’t mean anything to him – it wasn’t going to be death as we know it,” she recounted.
As Duncan’s attorneys continued to press him to put up a meaningful defense, the relationship devolved. He eventually asked to represent himself in court, and the judge agreed.
Clarke and the other attorneys stayed on as standby counsel, ready to help Duncan at his request during the sentencing hearing. They also asked the judge to find Duncan mentally incompetent.
“He was very disappointed, and felt betrayed by our taking the mental health evaluations and calling him mentally ill,” Clarke said. “… He didn’t want to be labeled mentally ill, and he felt betrayed by us when we did.”