Attorneys will argue Thursday whether Nathan Sloop should be eligible for the death penalty for allegedly killing his 4-year-old stepson Ethan Stacy in 2010.
Prosecutors have framed Sloop's charges based on "Shelby's Law," a 2007 amendment to Utah's homicide statute which allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty without having to prove a killing was intentional when a child dies during an act of abuse, sexual assault or kidnapping.
Sloop's attorneys have challenged the law, saying it is unconstitutional for a person to be condemned to death if they didn't intend to kill another.
After a four-day preliminary hearing that concluded in April, 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson was expected to decide whether there was enough evidence for Sloop, 34, to stand trial on charges of aggravated murder, intentionally inflicting serious physical injury on a child, obstructing justice and abuse or desecration of a human body.
Instead, defense attorneys asked the judge to consider argumentsregarding Shelby's Law.In its motion, the defense askedDawson to bind over Sloop on a non-capital first-degree felony, claiming Sloop did not intentionally kill Ethan.
But prosecutors responded in their motion by asking Dawson to bind over Sloop on the capitalcharges, saying that while a death-penalty challenge to Shelby's Law should be given a "full and fair" hearing, it is premature to argue the law at the preliminary hearing stage.
Attorneys on both sides are expected to elaborate during oral arguments Thursday.
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 because she would not stop crying. He was originally charged in 4th District Court with aggravated murder, but pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of first-degree felony murder. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Shelby's Law was named after 10-year-old Shelby Andrews who died in 2006 in Syracuse after a year of abuse at the hands of her parents.
In an effort to control and discipline the girl, her father and stepmother beat her, forced her to eat her own feces and shut her inside a cramped linen closet.
Ryan and Angela Andrews did not face a potential death sentence because existing law didn't allow prosecutors to file aggravated murder charges unless they could prove the girl's death was intentional. The Andrewses each pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder and were sentenced to spend 15 years to life in prison.
Outrage over Shelby's death spurred Utah lawmakers to toughen the penalties for murdering a child, and in 2007 Shelby's Law was signed by Gov. Jon Huntsman.
In March, Davis County prosecutors invoked Shelby's Law by filing amended charges against Sloop, alleging he was "a major participant" in Ethan's death, and that he acted with "reckless indifference to human life." The initial murder charge, filed in 2010, alleged Sloop "intentionally or knowingly" caused the boy's death.
Sloop's wife and Ethan's mother, Stephanie Sloop, 30, faces essentially the same counts, but she has not been charged under Shelby's Law, nor have prosecutors said they intend to seek the death penalty for her. Stephanie Sloop's case is on hold until her husband's preliminary hearing is resolved.
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."
Nathan Sloop, who led officers to the body on May 11, told police he used a hammer to disfigure the boy's face and teeth in an effort to hinder identification.But after a 12-hour search, police say the couple confessed to burying the boy near Powder Mountain Ski Resort in Weber County. The couple who said they left the injured boy in a locked bedroom while they got married on May 6 reported Ethan missing to police on Mother's Day, May 10, after discovering the boy was dead.