Reporters discuss their experience covering Duncan death penalty case

By Bethann Stewart

Joseph Duncan’s appalling crimes made him one of Idaho’s most notorious criminals, and three reporters who covered his federal death penalty sentencing hearing spoke publicly for the first time at a recent Idaho Press Club forum about the professional and personal challenges they had faced.

“As a 32-year-old crime reporter, you don’t think you have any innocence left to lose, ” said Rebecca Boone of the Associated Press. “This case was so singular in its horrendousness … that it was hard to separate what was in the public interest and what was a personal tragedy.”

On Aug. 27, Duncan was sentenced to death for the 2005 abduction, torture and murder of 9-year-old Dylan Groene of Coeur d’Alene. Duncan also kidnapped and assaulted Dylan’s sister, Shasta, who was 8 at the time, and killed their brother Slade, 13, their mother, Brenda Groene, and her fiance Mark McKenzie. Duncan awaits sentencing in state court after pleading guilty to their murders.

California officials also are waiting to try him for a murder there. In addition to Boone, Alyson Outen of KTVB Channel 7 and Betsy Russell of The Spokesman-Review covered the trial from gavel to gavel. The Idaho Press Club’s Southwest Chapter hosted the event at the Water Cooler in Boise. Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press moderated. The reporters recounted the obstacles that came up before the trial began:

  • Media access to information about the trial was restricted by gag order.
  • Documents that ordinarily would have been public record were sealed.
  • U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge initially said he would close the courtroom to the public for portions of the proceedings.

“Judge Lodge told me how things were going to be, and I got to say, ‘I think the media would object to that, ‘ ” said Russell, who acted as the media liaison for the trial. Just about every media outlet in Idaho and The Spokes-man-Review filed an objection to Lodge’s restrictions on
public access, Russell said. Ultimately, Lodge opened the courtroom, except for the testimony of Dylan’s sister, Shasta, should she be called to the stand. She was not. Boone said the gag order was so strict some court officials thought reporters couldn’t talk to anyone. After making
arrangements to interview Steve Groene, Dylan’s father, she was approached by U.S. marshals about her own potential court appearance for breaking a gag order she was not bound by.

The most difficult moment for the reporters came near the end of the trial when the jury was shown a graphic video Duncan had made as he tortured Dylan. The reporters could have decided not to watch it, but they didn’t. “I thought I should see whatever the jury saw, ” Russell
said. “We had to know what the jury took into account in order to know if justice had been served.”

After seeing the video, each reporter then had to make her own decision about what information would become public knowledge.
“We can’t sanitize a case like this, ” Outen said. “But we simply could not reveal the nature of some of the crimes.” Outen had to run out of the courtroom for a live shot shortly after the video was shown. She was totally numb. “To be honest, I was just trying not to cry, ” she said.
“The things he did just hit me in a different spot … and I went on autopilot.”

Boone called her editor and told him he would have to filter what she wrote because she had lost the ability to distinguish “what was acceptable to the average reader and what was beyond the pale.” Russell said as difficult as it was to do, the writing helped her exorcise what happened from her thoughts. “Readers in North Idaho were counting on me to tell them what was going on, ” she said. “The death penalty doesn’t get handed down lightly.”

The hardest part came later, Boone said, when she found she had to sing along with the car radio or read the road signs out loud to herself because a lull in sound brought her mind back to the video. Despite the bad memories, she said the reporters were not the ones most affected by the tragedy.

“As much as we’re up here talking about how it affected us, we were watching it from a million miles away, ” she said.

This article first appeared in The Idaho Statesman.