Two Utah Supreme Court justices on Monday questioned whether there was enough evidence to support the claim that Steven Ray James intended to kill his infant son in 1986 or that the murder was premeditated.
Justices Michael Zimmerman and Daniel Stewart said their reading of the trial transcript found no evidence was presented to support a finding that the child's death resulted from a premeditated act. And they also noted that there was no medical evidence presented establishing either the cause or method of death.Deputy Attorney General Charlene Barlow said there was testimony of a jail inmate who said he overheard a conversation between James and another inmate in which James allegedly admitted killing the child.
Zimmerman pointed out that even that testimony did not show that the child's death was intentional. "The inmate only said that (James) admitted killing - not that it was intentional, negligent or even reckless." Zimmerman also said testimony relating alleged abuse of the child also does not establish intent to kill.
The justices heard arguments - and counterarguments - on a motion for a new trial for James - the Logan man who was convicted of murdering his infant son, Steven Roy James, in 1986.
The justices took the motion under advisement.
A 3rd District Court jury found James guilty of first-degree murder in connection with the 1986 death of his infant son.
The issue to be resolved by the Supreme Court is whether there is merit in James' argument that he should not have been found guilty of a first-degree felony and should be entitled to a new trial on a lesser charge. The justices must also decide whether the jury selection process also entitles James to a new trial.
Attorney Robert W. Gutke argued that the jury's finding was not supported by the evidence presented and that the selection of jurors was tainted by the judge's decision to conduct all questioning of prospective jurors himself. He also argued that a California conviction against James should not have been used as an aggravating circumstance to make the offense a first-degree felony.
Zimmerman also questioned why trial judge Pat Brian would allow testimony from one inmate while saying testimony from another inmate who alleged that the first inmate admitted giving perjured testimony to get a better deal from prosecutors, should not be considered. In both instances, Zimmerman noted, the testimony involved statements by people not directly involved in the incident.
James originally told police that the child was taken from the back seat of an unlocked car while he went inside a Logan drugstore to make a purchase. The child's body was found near a marina on the Bear River by duck hunters four months later. The body was wrapped in a mattress cover from James' residence and had been weighted down with rocks.
The trial was held in Salt Lake City after attorneys successfully argued for a change of venue because of pretrial publicity.