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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Killer Joseph Duncan gets new competency hearing

Joseph Edward Duncan  in October  2006. 
 (File / The Spokesman-Review)
Condemned serial killer Joseph E. Duncan is getting another day in court. Duncan, on death row for the torture slaying of a North Idaho boy he abducted in 2005 after slaughtering most of the youngster’s family, will undergo a hearing to determine whether he was mentally competent when he decided to represent himself and waive his appeal rights. The move, which relates only to the sentencing phase rather than Duncan’s underlying conviction, comes after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to weigh in on the competency issue, leaving in place a lower court ruling. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge should have ordered competency hearings to explore whether Duncan understood the implications in November 2008 when he told the judge that he didn’t want to appeal his triple death sentence for the kidnapping, torture and murder of 9-year-old Dylan Groene. If Lodge concludes after the hearing that Duncan was incompetent, which his attorneys have previously argued he was, Lodge would be required to vacate Duncan’s death sentence and hold a second sentencing trial detailing the deadly claw-hammer attack on the Groene family at their small home at Wolf Lodge near Coeur d’Alene. “Judge Lodge, we anticipate, will take that up as soon as he has a chance to look at it,” said Wendy Olson, U.S. Attorney for Idaho. “He’ll assess what needs to be done to get that hearing ready to go. We’ll wait to hear from him about how he wants to proceed.” Attorneys representing Duncan asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last October to halt the proceedings so they could seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The denial to hear the case came Tuesday but wasn’t entered into the court record until today. Olson previously said she believed Duncan was competent, even though Lodge held no actual competency hearing. In 2009, a judge and jury determined that Duncan was competent after weeks of testimony in connection to a separate child murder case in California. But the 9th Circuit ruled in the Groene case that “reasonable doubt” exists, based on expert testimony, that Duncan was competent in 2008 when he waived his appeal and represented himself at the penalty phase of the case. “In addition to the expert evidence, the district court had before it several letters written by Defendant in prison while waiting for his day in court. Often in those letters, Defendant made philosophical observations and arguments rooted in religious beliefs,” Judge Susan Graber wrote. “Some of those arguments appear rational … (he) implored his family members not to testify in his defense because, in his words, ‘there simply is no excuse or mitigating evidence to justify or minimize what I did.’ “But others of the Defendant’s statements are unusual and his writings suggest that those unusual beliefs played a significant role in his decisions about how to conduct his defense.” Duncan killed three members of the Groene household in May 2005 so he could kidnap and molest the family’s two youngest children. He received three death sentences for the torture and killing of 9-year-old Dylan Groene. His younger sister, Shasta, who was 8 at the time, survived. In the California case, Duncan was convicted of killing 10-year-old Anthony Martinez, bringing him a total of 11 life sentences in addition to being sentenced to death in the Groene case. As of today, Duncan remains on death row at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.