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News >  Idaho

Judge rejects Joseph Duncan’s death penalty appeal

Federal judges have rejected efforts to spare killer Joseph Duncan from the death penalty.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a district judge correctly determined Duncan was mentally competent when he waived his right to appeal his death sentence. They also ruled it was too late for Duncan to change his mind two years later.

Duncan kidnapped, tortured and murdered 9-year-old North Idaho boy Dylan Groene in 2005. He also murdered three of Groene’s family members at their home along Interstate 90 east of Coeur d’Alene, and kidnapped Groene’s sister Shasta, who was rescued while eating with Duncan at a restaurant.

Defense attorneys still could seek a hearing from all the judges of the 9th Circuit or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the ruling is a significant step in the case of Duncan.

“They upheld our arguments,” said Rafael Gonzalez, first assistant U.S. Attorney for Idaho. “We’re very satisfied with the court’s ruling.”

Duncan, 52, is on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has received multiple life sentences for his crimes, in addition to a triple death sentence.

At his federal death penalty sentencing trial in 2008, Duncan dismissed his attorneys and insisted on representing himself. On Nov. 15, 2008, he wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge saying, “This is to inform the court that if any appeal is initiated on my behalf, it is done contrary to my wishes.”

His standby defense attorneys maintained he wasn’t mentally competent to waive his appeal, and filed an appeal to the 9th Circuit on his behalf. Two years later, in 2010, Duncan said he’d changed his mind about appealing, based on his mother’s wishes; his defense attorneys have pressed his case since then.

“For the victims, it’s a long road,” Gonzalez said. “But we just keep taking it step by step to ensure that justice is done.”

Idaho U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, who was traveling Friday, personally argued the case to the 9th Circuit on March 17. “Competent defendants can waive their right to appeal, even in a capital case,” she told the appeals court in San Francisco.

The speedy ruling, just 10 days later, shows the judges agreed.

“His decision to withdraw that waiver, which he made more than two years later, came too late,” they wrote.

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