By Nicholas K. Geranios
The Associated Press
October 18, 2006
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho As the man accused of kidnapping two children and
killing their family waits in a jail cell for a federal indictment he
still holds what could be a bargaining chip: An encrypted laptop that
may contain more horrors.
The FBI's top hackers apparently have been unable to break Joseph Edward
Duncan III's security encryptions, and a plea bargain Duncan's lawyers
struck Monday with state prosecutors says the key must only be shared
with his defense lawyer.
The computer key may provide Duncan some negotiating leverage in the
next few weeks when authorities file federal charges that are expected
to carry the death penalty.
"Federal authorities are going to attempt to execute my client," said
Roger Peven, Duncan's federal public defender. "This is something I'd be
happy to talk with federal authorities about."
Peven is the only person other than Duncan to have seen some of the
contents of the laptop. He has declined to say what he saw on the
Has Duncan, a computer-savvy predator with his blogs, videos and other
high-tech tools, outwitted law officers? And what do his computers
"I am working on an encrypted journal that is hundreds of times more
frank than this blog could ever be (that's why I keep it encrypted),"
Duncan wrote on his Web log three days before the May 16, 2005, murders
near Coeur d'Alene.
Duncan speculated that it would take at least 30 years for technology to
emerge that could easily crack the encryption "and then the world will
know who I really was, and what I really did, and what I really
Duncan, 43, pleaded guilty Monday to killing three people Brenda Groene,
her 13-year-old son, Slade; and her boyfriend, Mark McKenzie so he could
kidnap Shasta Groene, then 8, and her 9-year-old brother, Dylan, for
Seven weeks after the May 2005 slayings, Shasta was rescued. Dylan's
body was later found at a remote campsite in Montana. Under his state
plea agreement, he is to be sentenced to three consecutive life terms
But federal prosecutors have said they intend to charge Duncan with
kidnapping Shasta and Dylan, and that they expect to seek the death
penalty. Court documents allege he repeatedly molested the pair.
Duncan also has been investigated in the abductions and murders of
10-year-old Anthony Martinez in Riverside County, Calif., in 1997 and
two Seattle half-sisters, Sammiejo White, 11, and Carmen Cubias, 9, in
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Haws noted that Duncan's initial plea
offer, which was rejected by Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas,
called for Duncan to reveal the encryption key in exchange for escaping
the death penalty.
That initial deal also hinted that the contents of the laptop contained
information involving at least Shasta Groene. The final deal called for
the key to be revealed only to Peven.
Haws declined to criticize the state's plea agreement, saying Douglas'
job was only to get the best deal against Duncan in state court.
"How it affects the federal case is not their job," Haws said.
If the federal trial does not produce a death sentence, Duncan could be
brought back for a death penalty hearing in state court, Douglas said.
FBI computer experts in Quantico, Va., have reportedly spent the past
year trying to break into Duncan's laptop, which was found in his stolen
vehicle in July 2005, and the desktop computer at his apartment in
Douglas said he rejected the initial offer that would have given law
enforcement officers the encryption key because it also spared Duncan
the death penalty in the state case. The contents of the computer were
only of interest to federal authorities, Douglas said.
"That was not even my case," Douglas said.
Duncan, a Tacoma, Wash., native, is a registered sex offender who spent
most of his adult life in prison for sex crimes against children. He was
released from prison in 2000, and was scheduled to complete a bachelor's
degree in computer science at North Dakota State University in May 2005,
the same month the murders occurred.
Public defender John Adams, who negotiated the plea agreement with
Douglas, said the final deal "was something both sides could live with."
"I don't know what's on there," Adams said of the laptop computer.
Copyright 2006 The Seattle Times Company
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