Judge: Courtroom stays open for Duncan hearing

BOISE, Idaho — A federal judge has rejected a request that the courtroom be closed for part of a convicted murderer’s mental competency hearing.

The Idaho Statesman reported U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge made the ruling Thursday morning in the competency hearing of Joseph Edward Duncan III. An appellate court ordered the hearing to help Lodge determine if Duncan was mentally competent in 2008, when he gave up his right to appeal his death sentence for the 2005 kidnapping of two northern Idaho children and the murder of one of them.

Attorneys for Duncan asked the judge earlier this month to close the courtroom for some testimony from Duncan’s former lawyers, or to hear the testimony in a private location. The defense team said the lawyers were best able to talk about Duncan’s mental status back in 2008 because they had more contact with him than any experts did at the time.

Duncan’s attorneys said the lawyers should be allowed to testify in private to keep from scaring off current and future clients, since the testimony could include conversations that would normally be protected by the attorney-client relationship. Attorney-client privilege means that most communications between an attorney and a defendant are private and don’t have to be revealed in court, although a defendant can waive that right if he or she wishes.

U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson countered that there was simply no overriding reason to close the courtroom that would trump the public’s interest in having open access to the courts.

“Furthermore, the public has a significant interest in these competency proceedings,” Olson wrote in her court filing. “Considerable public resources have been devoted to the investigation, prosecution and earlier court proceedings in this case. In this hearing, the public already has observed several witnesses testify regarding the defendant’s communication style, his communications with mental health professionals and those mental health professionals’ interaction, or lack thereof, with former defense team members.”

Duncan kidnapped 9-year-old Dylan Groene and Dylan’s younger sister from their Wolf Lodge, Idaho, home after killing several of their family members in 2005. He kept the children in the Montana wilderness for weeks before killing Dylan and returning with Dylan’s sister to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he was arrested.

He was sentenced to life in prison in Idaho state court for the Wolf Lodge murders, and to life in prison in California state court for the murder of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez in 1997 — a crime he confessed to after the Idaho murders. Duncan has also told investigators that he killed 11-year-old Sammiejo White and her 9-year-old half-sister, Carmen Cubias, near Seattle in 1996, but he has never been charged in their deaths.

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