The trial of a man accused of killing his 3-month-old son will be moved from Cache County because widespread community involvement there makes it difficult to seat an impartial jury, the Utah Supreme Court has decided.
In a unanimous decision, made public Monday, justices gave a lower state court the responsibility of deciding which county should be the site of the trial.Steven Ray James, charged with first-degree murder, led officials in and around Logan on a massive search in 1986 after he said his infant son was kidnapped from the family car in a store parking lot.
The infant's body was later found submerged in an area known as the Benson Marina, weighted down with rocks. James was charged shortly thereafter.
State Supreme Court justices said Cache County residents became intimately involved with the case during the month and a half that authorities believed the child was kidnapped. Churches, schools and local businesses aided in the search.
News reports after the child's body was found said some volunteers felt they had been gullible in believing that the child had been kidnapped.
"We believe this involvement . . . accentuated the difficulty in seating a jury which has not been touched in some way, either directly or through family or friends, with this crime, which played a prominent part in the lives of Cache County residents for a month and one-half," said the decision, written by Chief Justice Richard C. Howe.
The decision also was based on the extensive news coverage given to the case and on a belief that James will be perceived as being different from the mainstream of the community because of his long hair and because of reports he had been using drugs.
Howe noted that James, if convicted, may be sentenced to die.
"This is the most momentous judgment a jury can be asked to make," he said. "The judgment should be made in an atmosphere as free from any taint of bias or prejudice as is reasonably possible. Because of the unique circumstances of this case, it would not be fair or wise to either defendant or the residents of Cache County to require a Cache County jury to make that decision."
The court also ruled that the jury should not learn about James' prior criminal record until after it has determine whether he is guilty.
In 1973, James was convicted in California of charges of threatening and being violent to another person. He allegedly pleaded guilty to the charge as part of a plea bargain wherein prosecutors agreed to dismiss kidnapping charges.