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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Duncan, on death row, now facing aggressive brain cancer

Duncan  (Terry Pierson)
Duncan (Terry Pierson)

Joseph Duncan may not receive the death penalty after all, but not because he’s won an appeal.

Duncan, who’s on death row in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, has been diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer, and it may well be moving faster than the wheels of justice.

As part of Duncan’s on-again, off-again attempts to appeal his death sentence for some of the most heinous crimes ever committed in this region, his current attorney has asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for more time to prepare arguments.

One of the reasons, according to recently filed court documents, is Duncan’s diagnosis of glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer for which he underwent surgery last year. Duncan has declined chemotherapy and radiation, and a doctor estimated on Nov. 20 that his life expectancy was “probably” between six months and a year, according to filings made Jan. 21.

“Due to Mr. Duncan’s terminal diagnosis, counsel has had to spend time addressing his medical issues and monitoring his condition,” wrote assistant federal defender Jean Giles. “Counsel has scheduled more legal calls than would be typical for this stage of legal proceedings. Further, counsel has found Mr. Duncan is experiencing some memory problems, which requires counsel to explain concepts and repeat facts.”

Duncan is a violent sexual predator who could make the most committed death-penalty opponent clamor for an exception. In 2005, he killed Brenda Groene, her boyfriend and her 13-year-old son in their home near Coeur d’Alene, and kidnapped two of Groene’s other children: Shasta, who was 8, and Dylan, 9. He tortured and abused the children unspeakably, and killed Dylan; he was caught with Shasta at the Coeur d’Alene Denny’s seven weeks after he kidnapped them.

His crimes were, in every particular, extraordinarily vicious, and he pleaded guilty to state charges resulting in the death penalty; he was also charged in federal court on kidnapping and aggravated sexual abuse charges, among others, for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. He pleaded guilty in the killing of a 10-year-old boy in California, and he confessed to killing two girls in Seattle for which he was not charged.

His court history has been strange and convoluted. He represented himself in the penalty phase of the federal trial, and following his conviction he waived his right to an appeal. His attorneys have subsequently argued unsuccessfully that he wasn’t competent to make that decision; the Ninth Circuit rejected that argument in 2015, and the Supreme Court declined to take it up.

His attorneys have argued since that Duncan received ineffective counsel, along with several other constitutional claims. Judge Edward Lodge rejected that appeal in 2019, and Duncan’s attorneys are now asking the Ninth Circuit to review that decision and allow them to bring an appeal.

Duncan’s health problems were raised in the documents filed in the course of pursuing that case.

Giles wrote that she learned Duncan had undergone brain surgery in October 2020, and she attached a medical record from a consultation with a Bureau of Prisons doctor dated Nov. 20.

In it, Dr. William Wilson, wrote that Duncan is “terminal and has declined again oncology consultation suggestions for radiation and chemotherapy.”

Wilson wrote that he discussed end-of-life preparations with Duncan and suggested he take ibuprofen to deal with headaches. He wrote that he had consulted the warden and suggested that someone help Duncan keep his cell clean. “It might be a little much for him to consistently bend over and clean the area considering his balance issues,” he wrote.

He said Duncan’s life expectancy was likely six to 12 months – less than three to nine months by now.

You can consult your own sense of justice – or karma – in deciding how to respond to this news. But it seems pretty likely that cancer will kill Joseph Duncan before the federal government has a chance to.

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