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Serial killer Joseph Duncan is mentally competent, federal judge rules

BOISE – A federal judge has cleared the way for serial killer Joseph Duncan’s execution for the 2005 kidnapping, torture and murder of a 9-year-old North Idaho boy, ruling that Duncan was mentally competent when he gave up the right to appeal his death sentence.

There still could be further appeals, but U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge’s ruling Friday is a key step toward execution for Duncan, who’s been sentenced to death three times over and has been linked to the murder of children and adults. Lodge wrote in his 66-page ruling that he’s “presided over numerous competency hearings in my 50 years on the bench. While these decisions many times are difficult and hard to make because of the consequences that follow, the Court is firmly convinced that the conclusions stated in this order are correct.”

Duncan pleaded guilty to all charges for his murderous 2005 attack on the Groene family at their Wolf Lodge Bay home, where he killed three family members with a hammer and kidnapped the family’s two youngest children. He then took the youngsters to a remote Montana campsite, where he tortured and molested them, before killing the boy, Dylan Groene. Only Dylan’s then-8-year-old sister, Shasta, survived the attack.

At his capital sentencing trial in 2008, Duncan jettisoned his court-appointed defense attorneys and represented himself, prompting them to protest that he was mentally incompetent. Lodge ordered two extensive competency evaluations, holding up the sentencing trial for months, before ruling Duncan competent and letting it proceed. An Idaho jury handed down three death sentences for kidnapping, murder and torture. Duncan also received nine life sentences for his crimes.

Duncan then informed the court that he wanted to waive his right to appeal. He filed letters and documents with the court, and told the judge directly, when asked if he understood his right to appeal, “My answer is I certainly understand my right, my right in quotes, and I have no desire, as I mentioned in the letter I wrote to you, to invoke it.”

Duncan’s standby attorneys filed an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for him anyway, and contended he wasn’t mentally competent to make that decision. The appeals court found that Lodge should have held a competency hearing in open court, allowing each side to cross-examine the experts, before ruling Duncan competent. Instead, he had ruled on the basis of sealed evaluations by experts.

That hearing was held in January and February this year. Nine expert witnesses testified, including four appointed by the court, one hired by the prosecutors and four hired by the defense; brain scans and other test results were submitted and discussed. While the defense experts said they believed Duncan was psychotic and delusional, the others said he wasn’t, instead diagnosing him with pedophilia, an antisocial personality disorder with narcissistic traits and sexual sadism. None of those, however, interfered with his mental competence, they found.

Lodge wrote that he reached the same conclusion from interacting with Duncan in court.

“The defendant clearly and unequivocally waived his right to file an appeal, having been fully advised of the consequences of that decision and knowing full well the ramifications of doing so,” Lodge wrote. “The decision was a rational choice based on his acknowledgment of his guilt for the crimes charged and his decision to no longer participate in the process.”

Duncan submitted a letter to the court in 2010 saying he’d changed his mind, based on his mother’s wishes. Since that time, his court-appointed attorneys have pressed his case.

U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson said Friday, “The United States is pleased with this careful, considered decision.”

Duncan’s defense attorneys, who didn’t return a reporter’s calls Friday, could appeal Lodge’s ruling to the 9th Circuit or pursue other avenues of appeal.

Duncan, 50, remains on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind. That facility has seen only three executions: two in 2001, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and one in 2003.

Duncan has admitted to kidnapping, molesting and killing three other children in two states.

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