BOISE – If ever a case justified the death penalty, Joseph Duncan’s kidnapping, torture and murder of a 9-year-old Coeur d’Alene boy is the one, federal prosecutors argued Wednesday. A jury of nine men and three women agreed.
Duncan committed the crimes after hunting for victims across the region in 2005 and targeting the Groenes, murdering three family members in order to kidnap and molest the family’s two youngest children. One, 8-year-old Shasta, survived.
As prosecutors pressed for a rare federal death sentence, they presented evidence that Duncan murdered three other children in two other states, cases in which no one has been tried.
“It is time to close the book on these horrific crimes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Traci Whelan said in her closing argument. Jurors took just three hours to deliberate. Duncan then stood before U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge and received three death sentences, one for each of three crimes against Dylan Groene: kidnapping resulting in death, sexual exploitation of a child resulting in death, and use of a firearm in a violent crime resulting in death.
Duncan, who has insisted on wearing jail-issue bright-orange scrubs, long hair and an unkempt beard, stood with his hands clasped behind his back, and received his sentence. He offered no closing statement in his defense. “I have no argument,” he said.
Tearful jurors greeted Steve Groene, the murdered boy’s father, in a courthouse elevator lobby afterward, shaking his hand and telling him how sorry they were about what happened to Dylan. “You made the right decision – don’t ever think you didn’t,” Groene told the jurors. “My family thanks you from the bottom of our hearts.”
The death sentence marks the end of three years of legal proceedings over some of the worst crimes North Idaho has seen. Duncan has the right to appeal his sentence to the federal court of appeals.
U.S. Attorney Tom Moss said the federal death penalty takes a long time to carry out, and he wouldn’t even guess about when the execution might occur. “We do feel good about the … victory of justice,” Moss said. “This jury had one of the heaviest burdens that any jury could ever have to deal with.”
California also wants to try Duncan for the 1997 abduction and murder of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez, for which he could get another death sentence. Authorities in Seattle say additional charges are unlikely in murders there; Duncan told the FBI he abducted and murdered 9-year-old Carmen Cubias and 11-year-old Sammiejo White in 1996.
“We’re hoping now that we’re not gonna get dragged down to California, for any kind of a trial down there – that would just be a travesty,” Steve Groene said. “There’s a possibility that Shasta will be subpoenaed to go to California if they do indeed go along with the prosecution. There’ll never be any closure.”
Evidence in the federal case included video that Duncan made of his sexual abuse and torture of Dylan at an old cabin in the Lolo National Forest in Montana. Steve Groene strongly objected to the video being shown.
Moss said prosecutors had to prove “that the crime that was committed was especially heinous, cruel and depraved – this was the best evidence we had of that.” The video evidence, he said, was “critical.”
Duncan murdered the children’s mother, Brenda Matthews Groene, her fiancé, Mark McKenzie, and her 13-year-old son, Slade Groene, by binding and bludgeoning them to death at their Wolf Lodge Bay home just east of Coeur d’Alene. He then took Dylan and Shasta to the remote campsite where he molested and tortured them and killed Dylan. Shasta was rescued nearly seven weeks later when she was spotted with Duncan at a Coeur d’Alene Denny’s restaurant.
“I’d have given him the death penalty after the first day of witnesses,” Steve Groene said. “I’ve told people in the past the only way there’ll be closure is if they let me kill this guy myself.” But he added, “That wouldn’t even do it.”
The father said, “I’m not really happy that another life is going to get taken now.” The whole thing could have ended, he said, if Duncan had killed himself, as his journals show he considered, instead of going after children. “It could’ve all ended with one life.”
Darlene Torres, Brenda’s mother, said, “I’m so glad this is over. Justice has been served. It’s been a long three years.”
Torres said that when she testified about her loss, she looked at Duncan. “I see nothing but an evil, empty, cold-hearted shell, that’s all I see.” Torres said nothing can be done to Duncan that will relieve her emptiness, “but at least I know he’s not out there hurting anyone else.”
The three death sentences triggered the end to Duncan’s earlier case on state charges in Kootenai County for the three murders at the Groene home. Under a plea agreement, Duncan admitted guilt in the murders on the condition that if he didn’t get a death sentence in federal court, he’d be returned to Kootenai County to face one there.
In accordance with that agreement, Kootenai County on Wednesday imposed three consecutive life sentences on Duncan for the three murders. He’s already serving three consecutive life terms for kidnapping in each of those three slayings, because he bound his victims and held them captive before killing them.
Duncan must appear again in Lodge’s Boise courtroom for sentencing on the seven other charges to which he’s pleaded guilty. For those offenses, involving kidnapping and molesting Dylan and Shasta, the judge set Duncan’s sentencing for 9:30 a.m. Oct. 15.
The case over his crimes against the two children went to federal court because he crossed state lines, taking them from Idaho to Montana.
David Leroy, a former Idaho attorney general and death penalty supporter, said, “I think this is one of the most horrific cases in the past several decades of which I’m aware, anyplace in the country.”
Betty Richardson, former U.S. attorney for Idaho under President Bill Clinton, said, “I have serious reservations about using the death penalty under any circumstances. However, if ever a case justified use of the death penalty, this would be that case.”
Last week, Duncan spoke out in a closing argument for the first phase of his federal sentencing trial, in which jurors unanimously found him eligible for the death penalty.
“You people really don’t have any clue yet of the true heinousness of what I’ve done,” he told the jury, looking straight at them. “My intention was to kidnap and rape and kill until I was killed, preferring death easily over capture.”
Steve Groene, who has lost his vocal cords to throat cancer and speaks through an electronic voice box, said he thought God had kept him alive through his cancer “to see justice for my children be done. Hopefully he’ll leave me around a little longer, so that I’m able to see my daughter grow up in the way I wasn’t able to see my sons.”
Groene told jurors he was sorry they had to watch the graphic video.
“I sure hope the government is offering you guys some counseling,” the father said. “I refused it for a long time, and when I eventually did it, it helped a lot.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.