Second Lake Lowell murder defendant to serve 15-30 years

jsowell@idahostatesman.comOctober 3, 2013 

Christopher "Mikey" Duran will serve 15 to 30 years in prison for standing by while Gregory Higgins Jr. fired five fatal shots into his friend, James Groat.

Duran was sentenced Thursday, one day after Higgins was sent to prison for life without parole for the Aug. 27, 2012, murder.

Originally charged with first-degree murder, Duran pleaded guilty in July to aiding and abetting second-degree murder. He also provided crucial testimony that helped convict Higgins of first-degree murder. For both reasons, prosecutors recommended Duran serve at least 15 years and be eligible for parole, a request Canyon County Third District Judge Juneal Kerrick followed.

"Without his cooperation, it's possible Mr. Higgins may not have been convicted," Deputy Canyon County Prosecutor Monica Morrison said.

Prior to sentencing, Duran stood and faced Groat's family members to say he was sorry.

“It hurts me every day that I didn't do anything to stop it," Duran said. "I should have helped (Groat). He was a good guy."

Duran said he asks himself daily why he did it.

“I hope you can forgive me one day," he said. "If not, I understand."

Kerrick said she was "shocked" to see how Duran turned his back on Groat when he knew what Higgins had planned. Duran obtained a gun from Groat that Higgins later used in the murder. Duran also helped lure Groat to a remote area near Lake Lowell outside Nampa on the guise of serving as a security backup for a drug deal.

The judge rejected the contention of defense attorney Scott Fauser and Duran family members that Duran was scared for his own safety and essentially "didn't have a choice."

"You took advantage of his friendship and led him off to be executed," said Kerrick, who told Duran he had plenty of choices that night. "Without your help, I just don't think it would have happened."

The judge said she believed Duran when he said he was sorry and noted the importance of his testimony in convicting Higgins.

Kerrick also expressed sympathy to the families of both Groat and Duran.

"This is a very tragic, tragic case because many lives are now in ruin," Kerrick said.

Groat's sister, Natalie Needham, said she was satisfied with the sentence. She said she still struggles with the fact that Duran and a third man, Cruz Flores, failed to prevent their friend from being killed.

"It's hard to understand. None of it makes sense," she said.

The case against Flores was sealed by a judge. He is not listed as an inmate in either the Canyon County Jail or the state prison system.

But it appeared from comments made during Duran's sentencing hearing that charges against Flores were dropped. Both Morrison and Kerrick noted that Flores was not involved in planning the murder, nor in carrying it out.

"Mr. Flores had no idea he was going out to a murder," Morrison said.

Duran faced a minimum of 10 years in prison and could have been ordered to serve life.

His plea deal also dropped an unrelated charge of lewd conduct, over alleged sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl. Higgins' attorneys argued that Duran intended to kill Groat because Groat planned to report the relationship with the girl to police.

At the end of Thursday’s sentencing hearing, Morrison walked over to the defense table and said "thank you" to Duran.

"You have to have empathy for the victim's family. But you also have to have empathy and compassion for someone who has taken responsibility for what he did," Morrison said.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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