Killer of Idaho family wants to defend self in penalty case

The man murdered three members of a family and raped their two young children.

>BOISE, Idaho (AP) – A man who murdered three members of a family and raped their two young children before killing one of them as well wants to act as his own attorney during his death penalty hearing, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Joseph Edward Duncan III did not speak in court and gave no indication if he was upset with his attorneys, and defense lawyer Mark Larranaga didn’t say why Duncan was hoping to represent himself.

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said he would consider the matter Friday.

Jury selection, from a pool of some 350 candidates, began this week for Duncan’s penalty hearing. Lodge said choosing a panel could take until the end of the month.

Duncan could face the death penalty for the kidnapping, sexual abuse and death of 9-year-old Dylan Groene in 2005. He pleaded guilty in December to 10 federal charges in the abduction of Dylan and his sister Shasta Groene, then 8.

Duncan had stalked the Groene family for a time before breaking into their Coeur d’Alene home in mid-May 2005 and murdering 13-year-old Slade Groene, his mother, Brenda Groene, and her fiance Mark McKenzie in order to abduct Dylan and Shasta. He abused the two younger children for weeks before killing Dylan with a shotgun and returning with Shasta to the Coeur d’Alene region, where he was arrested.

Duncan has pleaded guilty to the first three murders in Idaho state court, but a judge postponed his sentencing on those counts until after the federal sentencing hearing is completed. If the federal jury declines to recommend the death penalty for Duncan, instead recommending life in prison without parole, he would still be eligible for capital punishment in the state court.

Allowing a defendant to take over his own defense during a sentencing phase is a tricky proposition, but many courts have allowed it, said death penalty expert Adam Thurschwell, who was a member of the defense team for Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing case.

“This happens a fair amount, and it could be any number of things,” Thurschwell said. “Not infrequently, it’s the defendant’s desire to get executed. Another even more common reason is a disagreement with the lawyers about their strategy during the mitigation phase.”

Duncan’s defense team may want to show the jury that Duncan had a highly traumatic childhood, possibly revealing intimate facts about his family life, Thurschwell said.

“On one hand, that situation can be particularly painful for the defendant and on the other hand it is often quite embarrassing. For some defendants, they would rather take the risk of dying than to have that be aired in court,” he said.

One thing is clear, Thurschwell said: Whoever ends up representing Duncan has a difficult task.

“From a defense perspective it’s about as hard a case as I can imagine,” he said.

The fact that there is a video showing Duncan committing the abuse – which might be shown to the jury _ makes the case even more difficult.

“My own guess would be that the defense will try to get them to see the defendant as an individual who has been victimized as defenselessly and horribly and brutally as his own victims,” Thurschwell said.

On Wednesday, nearly 60 potential jurors were summoned for the first round of individual questioning.

One possible juror was dismissed after she told the court that the crime was so heinous that Duncan automatically deserves death. Another man was dismissed after saying he was concerned that he might have to view a videotape that officials said depicted Duncan’s sadistic sexual abuse of Dylan.

Duncan’s defense lawyers have repeatedly asked the potential jurors if there was anything they could hear that would make them less likely to recommend death. Some said that knowing Duncan was remorseful or had a terrible childhood might sway them.