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A defense attorney said Friday he remains "optimistic" about reaching a plea agreement in the case of a Burmese refugee accused of killing 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo more than two years ago.
During weekly meetings with defendant Esar Met, "we continue to work toward a resolution," defense attorney Michael Peterson told 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton.
Peterson requested additional time, and the judge set a scheduling hearing for Dec. 3.
But if no deal has been struck by December, prosecutors plan to ask for a preliminary hearing so the case can move forward.
The judge had excused Met's presence at Friday's hearing and she also excused him from attending in December.
"His presence here [during a May hearing] was extremely disturbing to him," the judge noted. "I prefer to not precipitate something like that again, if possible."
During the May hearing, attorneys had expected Met to resolve the case with a plea. Instead, the defendant angrily told the judge in his native language, "I was forced by the authorities here to say that I did it, but I didn't kill," according to an interpreter.
Two months later, at a July hearing, Peterson told the judge that Met's acceptance of any plea offer was dependent upon re-establishing contact with the defendant's family. But Peterson said the defense team had lost contact with family members, who live in Arizona.
The issue of contacting Met's family was not discussed in court on Friday, and Peterson did not make himself available for questions after the hearing.
Details of the plea negotiations have not been discussed in court.
Met, believed to be 23 years old, is charged with aggravated murder and child kidnapping for allegedly beating, sexually assaulting and strangling Hser Ner Moo at his South Salt Lake apartment on March 31, 2008.
Met and Hser Ner Moo lived in separate parts of the same refugee camp for Burmese refugees in Thailand before immigrating to the United States, where both lived at the South Parc Townhomes, 2250 S. 500 East.
Esar Met allegedly killed the girl inside his basement apartment, where her body was found a day after her disappearance sparked a massive search of the neighborhood.
An autopsy determined she died of blunt force trauma to her head, neck and torso. Some injuries were consistent with strangulation or suffocation, and physicians also found evidence of sexual assault.
The case bogged down in December 2008, when the defense raised questions about Met's mental competency. According to a March 2009 court docket entry, the defense intended to ask the judge to appoint mental evaluators, but nothing was ever filed with the court.
The defense has also raised questions about Met's age, noting they have found no birth records for him in either Burma or Thailand. According to what Met has told jailers, he is now 23. However, his mother, Ra He Mar, has said her son is older.
Met is being held at the Salt Lake County jail in lieu of $2.5 million bail.