Child Killer Shuns Lawyers

Joseph Edward Duncan III, right, is shown during a hearing at the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department Justice building in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on Oct. 16, 2006.
AP Photo/Kathy Plonka, Pool, File
The third anniversary of Joseph Edward Duncan III's vicious attack on the Groene family, in which he kidnapped two young siblings after a bloodbath at their home and whisked them away to western Montana, torturing them, raping them, and killing the 9-year-old boy, is just a month away.

Duncan was supposed to begin his federal sentencing hearing, which could result in the death penalty, sometime around May 1; jury selection began this week.

But now Duncan wants to fire his lawyers and represent himself.

That could mean the sole survivor of the attack, 11-year-old Shasta Groene, may have to wait even longer for justice. Worse, she could face cross-examination by the man who decimated her family.

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge was clearly troubled by the convicted killer's request. At a hearing Friday, Lodge questioned Duncan repeatedly to see if he fully understood what it would mean to serve as his own attorney.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Duncan pleaded guilty to 10 federal charges in December, including three that bring possible death penalties: kidnapping resulting in death, sexual exploitation of a child resulting in death and using a firearm in a crime of violence resulting in death. The other charges are kidnapping, two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor, being a felon in possession of a firearm, transportation of a stolen firearm, possession of an unregistered firearm and transportation of a stolen vehicle.

"I don't have an issue with counsel personally," Duncan told Lodge. "It's ideological. I don't believe that they can ethically represent my ideologies."

Duncan didn't detail his ideology in court, but authorities have examined an Internet blog that he kept for months before the Groene slayings.

In the blog, which he titled, "The Fifth Nail," Duncan documented his internal struggle against right and wrong, railing against what he called the ostracizing of convicted sex offenders, and offering religious views.

"You definitely do have a 6th Amendment constitutional right to represent yourself," but there are a number of concerns that have to be addressed, Lodge said. "I'm not aware your counsel has filed anything that shows there has been a mental evaluation."

Lodge told lawyers on both sides to submit briefs on the issue Monday.

In any legal case, a request for self-representation is tricky. In a capital case it's a potential minefield of errors. U.S. Assistant Attorney Wendy Olson told Lodge that a mistake at this stage could result in an automatic reversal on appeal, forcing both sides to start the sentencing hearing over again.

The crime spree began on a spring day in 2005 when Duncan, a convicted pedophile originally from Tacoma, Wash., first saw Shasta and Dylan playing outside their Coeur d'Alene home. He stalked the family for a time before entering the house one night in mid-May 2005, killing 13-year-old Slade Groene, his mother Brenda Groene and her fiance Mark McKenzie. Duncan drove away with Shasta and Dylan, sexually abusing and torturing the children for weeks in the remote Montana wilderness before killing Dylan and leaving his body behind.

Duncan took Shasta back to Coeur d'Alene, where a waitress at a local restaurant recognized the girl and called police on July 5, 2005.

Duncan was arrested and he pleaded guilty to the three Coeur d'Alene murders in state court. If federal prosecutors fail to win a death sentence for their charges, Duncan will be returned to Kootenai County to face a possible death penalty there.

Lodge said Duncan's demeanor and prior statements in both federal and state court strongly suggest he is capable of making the decision to represent himself. In a simpler case, Lodge said he might be able to rule immediately.

Still, because Duncan faces the possibility of capital punishment and because preliminary mental evaluations imply the "possibility of some other mental issues," Lodge said, a professional mental evaluation is needed.

It's not yet clear if that evaluation can be done quickly and locally, or if the court will follow the standard protocol and send Duncan to Seattle for a roughly 45-day evaluation by the Bureau of Prisons.

Duncan was taken aback when Lodge said the hearing could be delayed for a lengthy evaluation.

"That wasn't my intention when I initiated this," Duncan said. "The delay is unexpected and obviously I don't think anyone wants that."

There was no court discussion of whether Shasta would be called to testify at the sentencing hearing. The parties are forbidden to discuss the case outside of court under a gag order issued by Lodge.