Farmington • Following four days of preliminary hearing testimony over two months, a 2nd District Court judge on Friday said he would allow lawyers to submit written briefs before deciding if there is enough evidence for Nathan Sloop to stand trial for allegedly murdering his 4-year-old stepson, Ethan Stacy.
Judge Glen Dawson scheduled oral arguments in the case for June 20.
In particular, defense attorneys plan to challenge that Sloop has been charged under Shelby's Law which allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty without having to prove a killing was intentional if a child dies during an act of abuse, sexual assault or kidnapping.
The Sloop case is the first time defense attorneys have challenged the 2007 amendment to Utah's homicide statute.
Victor Gardea was the first person to be charged under the new amendment, when in 2008, he killed his 4-month-old daughter after punching her twice when she would not stop crying. He was originally charged in 4th District Court with aggravated murder, but he took a plea deal and pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of first-degree felony murder. He was sentenced to spend 15 years to life in prison.
It is named after 10-year-old Shelby Andrews, who died in 2006 in Syracuse after a year of abuse at the hands of her parents. Her father and stepmother, Ryan and Angela Andrews, couldn't face the death sentence, because existing law didn't allow prosecutors to file aggravated murder charges unless they could prove the girl's death as a result of child abuse was intentional. Both of the parents pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder and were sentenced to spend 15 years to life in prison.
"There was just a tremendous public outcry that this was such a horrible crime," according to Paul Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors. "Why wasn't it a capital case?"
Outrage over Shelby's horrific death spurred Utah lawmakers to toughen the penalties for murdering a child, and in 2007, Shelby's Law was signed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Last month, Davis County prosecutors invoked Shelby's Law by filing amended charges against Sloop, alleging that "with reckless indifference to human life" he caused Ethan's death. The charges initially filed in 2010 allege Sloop "intentionally or knowingly" caused the boy's death.
Earlier Friday at Sloop's preliminary hearing, a burn expert testified that scalding injuries suffered by Ethan contributed to his death.
Dr. Jeffrey Saffle, the former director of the Intermountain Burn Center, testified that Ethan had burns on 17.5 percent of his body.
"There would obviously be a tremendous amount of pain" associated with the second- and third-degree burns, Saffle said.
Saffle said the burns would have contributed to Ethan's death by causing fluid loss and dehydration.
But with proper care, Ethan likely would not have died from the burns, Saffle said, adding that the boy would have needed specialized treatments, including skin grafts, rehab and hospitalization.
Saffle said the wounds would be concerning to him as indications of child abuse.
"I would not expect a healthy 4-year-old to suffer a wound like this," he told the court.
Saffle came to his conclusions based on photos of Ethan's body, having never examined him in person.
During three days of previous testimony, law enforcement officers and medical experts told how the boy died from a combination of drug toxicity, scalding injuries and aspiration pneumonia, and how Sloop led law enforcement to the boy's badly beaten body three days after Ethan died.Sloop, 34, is charged with aggravated murder, intentionally inflicting serious physical injury on a child, obstructing justice and abuse or desecration of a human body. Sloop's wife and Ethan's mother, Stephanie Sloop, 30, faces the same charges. No date has been set for a preliminary hearing in her case.
Investigators believe Ethan died on May 8, 2010. Three days later, Nathan Sloop led law enforcement to where Ethan was buried in a shallow grave near Powder Mountain Ski Resort in Weber County. According to Layton police Sgt. Jeff Roderick, Ethan's body was found wrapped in eight garbage bags, buried beneath a curtain, lighter fluid bottle, ammonia bottle, burned glove, duct tape roll and a broken hammer which Nathan Sloop told investigators he used to disfigure Ethan's face and teeth after Stephanie Sloop told him she was worried about dental records identifying the boy.
Charging documents state the Layton couple engaged in multiple acts of "severe abuse" between April 29 and May 8 in 2010 that led to Ethan's death, including "beatings, burning, drugging, isolating, malnourishing, leaving the child alone and unattended while suffering, and refusing to seek vital life-sustaining medical attention."
Deputy chief medical examiner Edward Leis testified last month that he classified Ethan's death as a homicide.
Leis testified that Ethan had second- and third-degree burns on the soles of his feet and the back of his legs, likely from hot water in a bathtub. Based on where the injuries were found, Leis said it was unlikely the child would have stepped into the bathtub and realized it was too hot, or accidentally turned the faucet to the point where he burned himself.
According to police probable cause statements, Stephanie Sloop told police that on May 7, Nathan Sloop told her Ethan had burned himself by turning up the hot water when Nathan Sloop left the bathroom. But Nathan Sloop admitted to police that he had scalded the boy, according to testimony.
The severity of the scalding injuries likely would have caused the wounds to leak fluid, Leis said, which would have caused Ethan to become dehydrated. And dehydration could have magnified the effects of drugs in Ethan's system, Leis said.
Alprazolam, commonly known as Xanax, was found in Ethan's body, along with antihistamines and a synthetic opioid similar to codeine, which is used to treat pain or cough.
Leis also said Ethan had aspiration pneumonia, which implies that he had foreign material often stomach contents in his lungs.