BOISE, Idaho — A federal judge in Idaho heard closing arguments Thursday in a competency hearing for Joseph Edward Duncan III, and now must decide whether the condemned killer was mentally fit when he gave up the right to appeal his death sentence.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said he would try to issue a decision soon, but noted he first must review more than 8,000 pages of documents.
Duncan was convicted of killing several members of a northern Idaho family in 2005 so he could kidnap the family’s two youngest children. He tortured both kids in Montana for weeks before killing one of them and returning to Idaho with the other, where he was arrested.
Partway through his sentencing hearing in federal court, Duncan decided to represent himself, and after he was sentenced to death he waived his right to appeal. But he later changed his mind, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the hearing to see if Duncan was competent when he gave up the right to challenge his sentence.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson reminded Lodge that the court doesn’t have to decide if Duncan’s choice was rational, only if Duncan had the capability to make a rational choice that wasn’t substantially affected by a mental disease or defect.
“A rational choice does not mean a sensible decision,” Olson said.
Some of Duncan’s odd beliefs described by defense experts sounded decidedly less odd when the experts characterized them for prosecutors, Olson noted.
For instance, defense expert Debra Garvey testified that Duncan believed he could communicate with some people telepathically, Olson said, but when prosecutors cross-examined Garvey she acknowledged that Duncan referred to communicating with someone through “a look.”
Olson said Duncan also demonstrated the ability to make reasoned decisions when he served as his own attorney during the federal sentencing hearing and was able to cross-examine witnesses effectively.
“He had the ability to make reasoned choices among alternatives,” Olson said. “The defendant did not suffer from a mental disease or defect.”
Duncan’s attorney, Michael Burt, told the judge that the prosecutors took portions of experts’ statements out of context in an attempt to prove their case.
“In other words, it’s ‘Let’s pick out a piece of the evidence that seems to support the government’s interpretation of the facts … without regard to the context,’” Burt said.
He urged the judge to look at Duncan’s thinking patterns.
“If the court looks at the big picture, the court has tons of evidence of this delusional belief system, and the court has it from the government’s own evidence,” Burt said. “There are the letters and logs and telephone calls, and recorded telephone calls where the defendant did not know he was being recorded. He’s talking about ‘the truth,’ ‘the oneness.’ He’s talking about his split personalities ‘Joe’ and ‘Jazzy.’”
Duncan has been convicted of five murders spanning three states, but he faces the death penalty only in the case currently being dealt with in the federal court.
He was convicted in Idaho state court of killing Slade and Brenda Groene and Mark McKenzie at their northern Idaho home in spring 2005 so he could kidnap 9-year-old Dylan Groene and Dylan’s then-8-year-old sister. He took the two children into the remote Montana wilderness, where he tortured and abused them for weeks before killing Dylan and returning with the girl to Coeur d’Alene, where he was arrested. He also has been convicted of killing a young boy in Riverside, Calif., in a separate case.
Duncan’s crimes against the two youngest children in the Idaho family were handled in federal court. He told his attorneys in that case that he had planned to kill the 8-year-old girl while still in Montana and was about to bash her in the head with a rock when he had an “epiphany” and decided to let her live.
Duncan’s attorneys have said that “epiphany” was central to his strange beliefs, and that he believed he was enlightened and could lead the jury and all of humankind to an epiphany as well. But Duncan also believed he couldn’t actively participate in his defense or that would prevent the worldwide epiphany, his attorneys said.