BOISE, Idaho — The sister of a convicted killer who waived his right to appeal his death sentence says they both endured horrific childhood abuse at the hands of their mother.
Cheri Cox was in Boise’s U.S. District Court Wednesday to testify in the competency hearing of Joseph Edward Duncan III, who was sentenced to death in 2008 after admitting he kidnapped and tortured two northern Idaho children before killing one of them in Montana.
Duncan gave up his appeals, but his attorneys fought on his behalf and last year the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge to hold a retrospective competency hearing to determine if Duncan was mentally competent back in 2008 when he gave up his right to appeal.
Cox testified about what it was like growing up with Duncan in their childhood home. Cox said she and her four siblings were frequently beaten by their mother while she ranted that men were worthless, and described her mother as a crazy woman who attended church obsessively, every day.
Prosecutors did not question testimony Wednesday that Duncan’s mother was abusive, and The Associated Press could not immediately find contact information to reach her for comment.
Duncan, who was the second-youngest of the five children, was passive in the face of the beatings, Cox said.
“When she was beating on you, if you fought back, it was worse,” Cox said. “In his case, he just took what she gave and kind of whimpered off into his bedroom.”
Their father, who was in the military and often deployed, was frequently the subject of their mother’s derision.
Cox said she left home at 17 and only saw Duncan once after that, several years later when he was a patient at a Washington state psychiatric hospital.
Years later, her sister called to see if she’d heard or seen from Duncan because no one had talked to him in some time.
Cox responded that she hadn’t. She was boating just a week or so later when she heard Duncan’s name during a radio news story.
“And then I heard my brother had been arrested for the,” she said, pausing, “thing in Idaho.”
Duncan’s defense team also called Duncan’s former attorney, John Adams, to the stand.
Adams represented Duncan during his state court trial for the murders of Brenda and Slade Groene and Mark McKenzie, crimes that Duncan ultimately pleaded guilty to as part of a plea deal that left him with six consecutive life sentences.
“He was a broken man,” Adams said about his first impression of Duncan. “He was frightened and desperate and confused … It was often hard to follow what he was talking about because he was talking about things that weren’t relevant.”
Duncan often seemed to ramble in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way, Adams said, about metaphysical and religious things. The attorney never asked the court for a competency hearing or formally notified the state judge that he feared Duncan may be mentally incompetent, he said, but he believed that Duncan’s mental status was “touch and go.”
Still, Adams said he believed that on the day Duncan entered his guilty plea to the murders in state court, Duncan was competent to make that decision.
“I wouldn’t assist a person in a guilty plea that would result in six consecutive life sentences unless I was comfortable that he knew what he was doing,” Adams said.
Adams choked up once when discussing how he tried to persuade Duncan to take the plea deal to avoid a death sentence in state court.
“I told him, I expressed that I cared about him. … I thought that he could still have a life,” Adams said.
He later said his role as a defense attorney was to help his client avoid the death chamber.
“There’s enough people around to condemn them and blame them and heap scorn on them. My job is to represent them … to keep them off death row,” Adams said.
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.