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Appellate Court Throws Out Death Sentences for Killer of Anthony Martinez

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals questioned the mental competence of Joseph Edward Duncan, III, who admitted to killing the 10-year-old Beaumont boy in 1997.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned federal death sentences imposed on a child killer whose victims included a 10-year-old Beaumont boy, questioning the defendant's mental competence.

Joseph Edward Duncan, III, 48, was convicted in August 2008 of murdering an Idaho family, two of whose members – both children – he abducted and used as sex slaves for weeks before one was rescued.

Eleven years earlier, Duncan abducted, raped and killed Anthony Martinez from his Beaumont neighborhood after luring the youngster to his car with the promise of money for helping him find his lost cat.

Anthony's remains were located on Bureau of Land Management land east of Indio.

Like the Idaho crimes, Duncan admitted killing Anthony, and as part of a plea agreement reached earlier this year with the Riverside County District Attorney's Office. Duncan was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the child's death.

District Attorney Paul Zellerbach, a former judge, explained during a March news conference that he didn't feel pursuing the death penalty in California would be worth it because Duncan had already received three death sentences stemming from the murders of the Idaho family.

In that case, Duncan broke into the Coeur d'Alene residence of Brenda Groene and her fiancee, Mark McKenzie, in the middle of the night on May 16, 2005. He bound the man and woman at gunpoint, then fatally beat them with a hammer.

He killed Brenda's 13-year-old son Slade in the same manner, then carried off 8-year-old Shasta Groene and her brother, Dylan. The defendant later confessed to spending days planning the crimes.

For several weeks, Duncan imprisoned the children at a remote campsite, sexually abusing and torturing them – acts he videotaped. Dylan was taken aside at some point and shot in the head, according to federal investigators.

Duncan kept Shasta with him. The missing girl and her brother's pictures were broadcast on television, and after she was spotted in a Denny's restaurant with Duncan, police were summoned and arrested him.

At his federal trial in Boise, Idaho, Duncan confessed to all the murders and special circumstance allegations. Before his penalty trial got under way, the previously convicted child rapist insisted on representing himself. His attorneys objected that he wasn't mentally competent and asked for a competency hearing.

Three psychologists retained by the defense raised doubts about Duncan's ability to comprehend the legal process. However, two state-appointed psychologists found that the defendant was not delusional and “could understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him,” according to the Ninth Circuit's findings.

The trial judge allowed Duncan to represent himself, and he offered no defense, resulting in unanimous jury recommendations that he be executed for the Idaho killings.

He had already pleaded guilty in Idaho state court and was sentenced to multiple life prison terms. Prosecutors in Kootenai County, Idaho, have reserved the right to conduct a penalty trial, leaving open the possibility that Duncan could yet face capital punishment at the state level.

According to the Ninth Circuit's ruling, there was sufficient basis for the judge who presided in the federal case to order a competency trial for Duncan before the penalty phase of his murder trial began.

The panel quoted the defense's experts, who referred to Duncan's bizarre ramblings about religion and his way of life as evidence of “delusional beliefs, paranoia, grandiosity and psychotic breaks from reality.”

The appellate court also pointed out that a magnetic resonance imaging study showed the defendant had an ``unusual brain structure consistent with behavioral deficits in the ability to make rational plans and modulate emotions.''

The Ninth Circuit remanded the case back to the trial court for a review of whether Duncan is competent. If there's a finding that he isn't, the previous death sentences must be vacated and a new penalty trial held.

CNS contributed to this story.

Estrella Sierra July 12, 2011 at 11:23 PM
I am from Beaumont and remembered this case too well. The whole town was handing out pictures of Anthony and Duncan along with his car. Every where in town there was yellow ribbions. I don't understand what is wrong with our system how can they be so dumb and let this happen to any child, in my mind they are every much to blame as Duncan and the newest case Casey Anthony. I think the system should give Duncan to the town of Beaumont and let them handle him. His life for all those he took.
Becky Finch July 13, 2011 at 03:22 AM
Liberal or conservative... This man should have been executed way before he did these heinous crimes against innocent families! I know Anthony's family, and I am deeply saddened at this outcome.
June July 16, 2011 at 07:03 PM
I agree! I lived in Banning at the time this happened. My boys knew some of the Martinez family. I even met Diane. Things like this never leave your mind!! I, too, lost a daughter on July 7, 1988 at 15 mths old due to a brutal beating from my then abusive boyfriend of only 8 mths. He tried to pull the "mental incompentecy" act. It didnt work and I am happy to say to this day he is still in prison!!!! But, I remember that and what I went thru. Talk about being an overprotective Mother!!! That was and still is me! My heart and prayers go out to Diane and her family! Always in my heart! June Leeger Cano
Merced Ramirez August 30, 2011 at 08:58 PM
It is sad that these political extremists always turn a horrible event into a political statement... it is unimaginable that a judge or any one with common sense would only want justice done here. Simple justice. This animal should be terminated so he can harm no one else and bring some justice to the minds of the families he destroyed. Call me crazy but "mental incompetency" only adds to the reasoning to have him terminated, it doesn't provide an excuse. Justice has to be done, regardless.
Roger Jackson August 30, 2011 at 10:18 PM
My concern here is more with the possible next victim than the previous ones, God rest their souls and may their surviving friends and loved ones find peace. The one pro-death penalty argument I can't dispute is that it does make it certain, beyond any possibility, that the person will never kill again. To the excellent comment above that "liberals appoint liberal judges," I make note that because the legal profession is so liberal, there aren't a full plate of potential conservative judges in order to appoint to the court. I also make note that when President Eisenhower nominated Californian Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was undersood that Warren was a conservative, or at worst, a moderate. He became quite liberal once he was sworn into office. If we as a nation really meant "life in prison without any possibility of parole, with the one exception being new evidence, of course," I would be comfortable with a "life" sentence. However, when Charlie Manson, Tex Watson and the Manson women all got regular parole hearings, leaving Sharon Tate's mother (now deceased) and No. 2 Manson prosecution district attorney Steven Kay forced to attend those parole hearings, I wonder if any so-called "life" sentence really means anything. By the way, it wouldn't take 20 mothers 20 minutes with the guy to get the job done. How about one mother with five minutes. I think that would do it. Of course I really don't mean that, but we need to keep certain people off the streets forever.

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