FOI Fail of the Week: Judge’s secrecy leads to order for new mental competency trial in Idaho child murder case
By Morgan Watkins | July 21st, 2011
Joseph Duncan, a convicted child killer, was ordered back into court by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals because of secrecy problems in his previous trial.
The federal judge who presided over the previous court proceedings had two mental evaluations of Duncan but never held a competency hearing before he permitted the man to waive his chance to appeal the death sentence he received, according to a July 11 Spokesman-Review article.
The high court has determined that there must be a “retrospective” competency hearing, which will evaluate whether Duncan was in fact competent when he waived his appeal in November 2008.
Duncan was convicted of the 2005 kidnapping, torture and murder of a boy from North Idaho, and if he is considered competent after this hearing his death sentence will continue.
If he is found not to have been competent, there will be another hearing to find out whether he was competent when he decided to represent himself in court. If the court decides he wasn’t, it would lead to another penalty phase hearing in which he would be better represented.
Previous courts have decided that Duncan was competent during their proceedings.
Secrecy was a staple of Duncan’s previous trial in Idaho, where U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge kept his mental evaluations secret by failing to hold a hearing in court and sealed various records from public view.
Some of the secrecy was due to the fact that the case involved the murdered 9-year-old boy’s younger sister, who survived the attack. In addition to killing the boy, Duncan also killed three other members of the household in order to kidnap and molest the brother and sister.
His triple death sentences are for his torture and murder of the boy.
Although some secrecy in such a case can be considered appropriate, the appeals court deemed the judge’s decision not to hold a mental competency hearing unacceptable.
– Morgan Watkins
Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (email@example.com) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).