We don't think this is a capital murder case and we don't think it should be bound over as a capital murder case. —Defense attorney Richard Mauro
FARMINGTON — Young Ethan Stacy was burned over 17 percent of his body, from his ankles to his thighs, according to an autopsy report.
But if the 4-year-old boy had received proper medical treatment, the burns would not have been enough to kill him, a burn expert testified Friday.
The preliminary hearing for Nathan Sloop, 34, the boy's stepfather charged with capital murder, continued Friday for its fourth day. The first three days of the hearing were held last month. The lone person to take the witness stand Friday was Dr. Jeffrey Saffle, the former head of the Intermountain Burn Center at the University of Utah.
Based on photographs and information from police reports, he said Ethan suffered second- and third-degree burns from the tops of his feet and ankles up to his thighs. Although these "wounds are very, very painful," Saffle testified, "statistically, appropriate care should result in survival." That proper care, he said, would include hospitalization, pain medication, fluids and skin grafts.
Ethan arrived in Utah from Virginia in April of 2010. He was under court order to spend the summer with his mother, Stephanie Sloop, who was getting married to Nathan Sloop. Prosecutors say Ethan was abused during the short time he was in Utah. He died due to a combination of scalding injuries, drug toxicity and aspiration pneumonia, according to the medical examiner's office.
After his death, investigators say the Sloops attempted to disfigure Ethan's body and bury him in a shallow grave near Powder Mountain in Weber County. Following a large community search effort after the Sloops told police that Ethan walked away in the middle of the night, officers say their stories unraveled and they were arrested.
Sloop's defense attorneys, however, do not believe their client should be facing a potential death penalty because they say the boy's death was unintentional.
"We don't think this is a capital murder case and we don't think it should be bound over as a capital murder case," defense attorney Richard Mauro said.
Prosecutors are attempting to convict Sloop under Shelby's Law, which allows for the death penalty in cases where a child's death results from a defendant's reckless indifference.
Mauro said after Friday's hearing that Sloop did not intend to kill Ethan, nor did he recklessly kill him, adding that Shelby's Law doesn't apply in this case.
"No, he didn't (intentionally kill Ethan). Even the state agrees with that. The state has not charged this as a knowing and intentional killing. They've charged it under something called Shelby's Law. But they've not charged it as an intentional killing," he said.
"Our position is no. Our position is he did not recklessly kill Ethan. I think this little boy became ill. I think they used some imperfect efforts to treat his illness, including various kinds of medications. He became dehydrated. He had some issues relative to dehydration and he died in his sleep," Mauro said.
Some of those treatment efforts included putting honey on Ethan's burns.
Saffle admitted that placing honey on burns has been a longtime folk remedy, but said there are "no pharmacological approved sources of honey." He said the only proper treatment for the types of burns Ethan suffered would have been to take the boy to a hospital.
Defense attorney Scott Williams countered that while taking Ethan to the world's best hospital for burns would have been the preferred method of treatment, it did not mean that Nathan Sloop didn't attempt to treat Ethan's injuries on his own with something he thought would work.
"There were treatment efforts that were made in this case, and I think in fact the doctor alluded to those. Now, he called those homeopathic treatments. It's not something the best burn center in the world would do. But certainly our client had made some efforts to treat Ethan by calling a doctor, receiving information, going on the Internet, trying to apply remedies that were given to him both by a doctor and what they confirmed on the Internet," Mauro added.
Ethan's burns were believed to have been caused by scalding water. Exactly how he received those burns is in dispute. Saffle testified that the burn patterns on his boy's legs and because there were no burns on his hands, indicates that he was motionless in the water or could have been held motionless.
Williams countered that the boy could have used the side of the bathtub to push himself up or he could have been hanging onto an adult who pulled him out. He also noted to the court that Saffle did not ever look at Ethan's body himself to examine his burns.
After the state rested its case, the defense told 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson that they had advised Sloop not to take the stand in his own defense for the preliminary hearing.
Both sides will now prepare written briefs to complete their arguments, which could be followed by more arguments when they meet again in court on June 20. The defense also indicated it wants to explore issues concerning the death penalty.
Stephanie Sloop, 30, is facing identical charges as Nathan, but prosecutors have not indicated whether they intend to seek the death penalty against her. At Friday's hearing, Stephanie Sloop's attorney told the judge she does not want to schedule anything in his client's case until a resolution is reached in her husband's preliminary hearing.
Members of the group Ethan's Army, a group of supporters for the boy, attended Friday's hearing as they have in previous hearings.
"I think any parent that could allow these horrible things to happen to their child should be put to death, just as the mother who did it," said Anissa Martinez.
On May 4, the group plans to walk from the Layton Hills Mall to the Davis County Courthouse to raise awareness against child abuse. The group is asking participants to wear a blue or white shirt in Ethan's memory. This is the fourth year the group has made the Walk Against Child Abuse.