INDIO – The criminal case against a confessed child killer accused in the kidnap-slaying of a 10-year-old Beaumont boy was suspended Friday when a Riverside County judge said he wanted two doctors to evaluate the defendant to help determine if he is mentally competent to stand trial.
Joseph Edward Duncan III, 45, is accused of killing Anthony Martinez, whose nude body was found April 19, 1997, south of Joshua Tree National Monument in Indio, two weeks after he went missing from a neighbor’s yard in Beaumont.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge David B. Downing had earlier issued a tentative ruling that Duncan was mentally competent to stand trial, but he reversed course today and suspended proceedings in the case. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have until a hearing on March 30 to find two doctors to evaluate Duncan.
Duncan was in court today to ostensibly determine if he can represent himself at trial. Duncan represented himself last year in a federal trial for the murder of four people in Idaho. A federal judge found Duncan competent to represent himself after two court-ordered mental evaluations.
But Downing ruled Friday that he has a doubt of Duncan’s mental state after reading through five doctors reports from the federal case in Idaho.
“I do think the doctors who examined Mr. Duncan have provided substantial evidence of incompetency,” Downing said.
He read out parts of the reports that outlined Duncan as having a “severe brain dysfunction” that lead to “psychotic breaks from reality.”
The judge said he felt he had to “dot his `i’s and cross his `t’s” by suspending proceedings, to make sure that a court of appeals would not overturn any decision made in the case down the road.
“I have to follow the law whether I like it or not,” Downing said. “I don’t like what I’m doing.”
The judge did not ask Duncan’s opinion of the proceedings for the first time since the criminal case began. Before the hearing began, Duncan asked that black mittens, which the Indio Jail put on him, be removed so he could take notes and look at papers.
Duncan, who has asked to represent himself, has said in court previously that he had “no intention of cooperating with any state-appointed doctors” if proceedings were suspended.
The judge outlined two possibilities for the future course of the trial. Downing said the doctors could find Duncan competent to stand trial and then the case would continue.
The judge also said the doctors could find Duncan mentally incompetent to stand trial, and the issue of Duncan’s competency would then go to a jury trial that would likely last weeks.
Downing said he did not believe the suspension of the proceedings would keep the trial from starting in January.
When Duncan was brought to Indio to stand trial, defense attorneys appointed to represent him expressed doubt that he is mentally fit to stand trial or defend himself and asked for the judge to suspend proceedings.
Deputy Public Defender Mark Johnson, who says he does not believe Duncan is mentally fit, asked the judge again today to suspend proceedings and appoint two doctors based on the evidence in the five doctor’s reports.
Deputy District Attorney Otis Sterling, however, said he believes Duncan is mentally fit to represent himself. Sterling pointed out that the Idaho doctors were only asked if Duncan was mentally fit to defend himself, and the doctors were not asked the specific question if Duncan was competent to stand trial.
“The conclusions (of the doctors) are different than what we are here to talk about,” Sterling said.
The judge put off a decision on whether Duncan can represent himself.
“If he is not competent to stand trial, he is surely not competent to represent himself,” Downing said.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Duncan, who has already been given three death sentences and six life prison terms in Idaho for killing a 13-year-old boy, his mother and her fiance, and kidnapping a 9-year-old boy and his 8-year-old sister. He tortured and sexually abused the siblings over several weeks before shooting the boy in the head at a remote Montana campsite while his sister watched.
Duncan was arrested in July 2005 after a waitress at a Denny’s restaurant in Coeur d’Alene recognized him and the kidnapped girl. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have since been investigating whether the drifter and high school dropout, whose first sex offense was committed when he was 12, could be tied to other cases.
Duncan was tied to the Beaumont boy’s abduction and murder when the victim’s name surfaced as the defendant was being questioned in Idaho.
Partial fingerprints found where the boy’s body was discovered were matched to Duncan, according to the prosecution. He allegedly left his print on the duct tape that was used to bind Anthony.
Duncan is being held without bail at the Indio Jail.