Life in prison for Higgins, found guilty of 2012 murder near Nampa

jsowell@idahostatesman.comOctober 2, 2013 

Correction: This article originally misspelled the name of Tom Needham.

Gregory Higgins Jr. was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2012 shooting death of 27-year-old James Groat near Lake Lowell.

Third District Canyon County Judge Molly Huskey handed down the sentence following a nearly two-hour hearing. The judge called Higgins "pathetic" and said he showed no respect for Groat's life.

"We will probably never have complete closure, but this moves us a bit forward," Tom Needham, Groat's brother-in-law, said after the hearing.

Deputy Canyon County Prosecutor Monica Morrison said she was satisfied with the sentence. In court, she said Higgins showed no mercy toward his victim.

"(Higgins) forced (Groat) to start digging his grave and then shot him five times," Morrison said in arguing for the fixed life term. "Then he kicked him on the ground."

Defense attorney Chuck Peterson did not recommend a specific sentence for his client. He asked that Higgins be given the chance at parole.

"I'm just asking the court to give him a shot at release," Peterson said.

Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said he was proud of the work of his investigators, crime scene analysts and others involved in the case. He said their work helped ensure Higgins was convicted.

"We don't have a lot of these heinous crimes, thank goodness, but we're going to make sure those who commit them pay," said Donahue, who sat in on a portion of the sentencing hearing.

A Canyon County jury deliberated over parts of three days in July before concluding Higgins shot Groat once in the head and four times in the torso after accusing Groat of being a drug informant.

Authorities said repeatedly that Groat was not an informant.

HIggins was also found guilty of use of a deadly weapon in the commission of a felony.

The jury apparently believed the testimony of co-defendants Christopher “Mikey” Duran and Cruz Flores. They testified that they rode to the deserted location with Groat and Higgins. They said they watched as Higgins shot Groat while they did nothing to stop their friend and roommate from being murdered.

Groat was lured to the spot under the guise of serving as a backup for Higgins during a drug deal. Instead, it was a setup in which Duran testified that he understood Groat would not leave the scene alive.

Duran testified that after Groat was shot, Higgins humiliated him further by stomping him several times with his shoes while yelling “Are you dead yet?”

Defense attorney Chuck Peterson argued that Higgins wasn’t present at the murder scene. He accused Duran and Flores of setting up his client by picking him up at his home after the murder and going to a fast food restaurant, where their presence was videotaped.

Peterson claimed that Duran had a motive for the killing because Groat knew he was having an illegal sexual relationship with an underage girl and planned to notify police.

The prosecution pointed to a text message Higgins sent to Duran’s phone after the murder telling him to erase all of his text messages. That tied Higgins to the murder, prosecutors argued.

Duran pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree murder. He is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday. He faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and could face up to life.

Flores was charged with being an accessory to murder. A judge later sealed that file without explanation and no information on the case is available from the online state criminal court repository.

He is no longer listed as an inmate in the Canyon County Jail.

Morrison said she could not comment on the status of Flores' case because of the sealing of the file.

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