FARMINGTON — Although prosecutors haven't officially filed an intent to seek the death penalty against the couple accused of killing 4-year-old Ethan Stacy, the writing is on the wall.
"That is the direction this case is headed," Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said in court Friday.
Ethan's stepfather and mother, Nathan and Stephanie Sloop, made brief court appearances Friday, just hours after they were officially charged with aggravated murder, a capital offense.
Attorneys for the newlywed Sloops said they would be seeking new lawyers for their clients from the list of attorneys who are certified in Utah to handle death penalty cases. A hearing was scheduled for June 4.
The Sloops appeared separately before 2nd District Judge John Morris. Both wore red jail jumpsuits. Nathan Sloop wore a beaded necklace. He looked around the crowded courtroom as soon as he entered, searching for his mother. As he was escorted out of the room, he looked toward her and mouthed the words, "I love you."
Stephanie Sloop entered with a blank gaze on her face and began crying shortly after reaching the podium to stand before the judge.
In addition to the capital murder charges, the Sloops were also each charged Friday with child abuse and obstructing justice, both second-degree felonies, and abuse or desecration of a body, a third-degree felony. Nathan Sloop, 31, received an additional charge of damaging a jail, a third-degree felony.
The couple is accused of killing Ethan, the son of Stephanie Sloop, 27, and burying his body near Powder Mountain in Weber County. Court documents list "severe abuse" as the cause of death.
Investigators say Ethan was abused between April 29 and May 8. Nathan Sloop "engaged in multiple acts inflicting serious injuries," the charges state.
Prosecutors say Ethan was subjected to "beatings, burning, drugging, isolating, malnourishing," and was left alone and unattended while suffering from his injuries. In addition, the Sloops refused "to seek vital life-sustaining medical attention" for Ethan, according to the charges.
After Ethan was killed, the Sloops took his body to a rural area in the mountains and buried him in a shallow grave. Police documents indicate the couple attempted to disfigure Ethan's body with a hammer to make it harder for police to identify him.
Stephanie Sloop at first told police her son had wandered off in the middle of the night. After several hours of searching and questioning, however, investigators say they started catching inconsistencies in the Sloops' stories, which eventually unraveled, and the couple were arrested.
Prosecutors still have plenty of time before they have to officially declare whether they plan to seek the death penalty against the Sloops. Utah law gives them 60 days to make a decision after an official arraignment, which follows a preliminary hearing and is typically well into the legal process.
Other possible penalties — if the couple is convicted — include life without the possibility of parole, or a sentence of 25 years to life.
In a prepared statement, Rawlings said the decision on whether to pursue the death penalty "will come only after we have received all relevant evidence and information; after we have carefully considered statutory, aggravating or mitigating circumstances; after further consultation with the Attorney General's Office (including the appellate division); after we have consulted with (the) Layton (Police Department); and particularly after we have had extensive discussions with Ethan's family."
Several protesters outside the Farmington courthouse Friday displayed signs expressing anger at the boy's death. Among the messages were: "An eye for eye," "Mr. and Mrs. Sloop, I have a hammer, too," and one with flames and a cartoon devil saying "Sloop — you're mine."
Nevin Turner was among the protesters and said he and others came "to vent some anger" and to help keep Ethan's memory alive.
"Once the initial sadness dies, then anger surfaces," Turner said.
Pam Sloop, Nathan Sloop's mother, was escorted to her car by several sheriff's deputies following Friday's hearing.
The aggravated murder charges are at least the second time prosecutors in Utah have used "Shelby's Law," a change made to Utah's aggravated murder statute in 2007 that lets prosecutors bring capital murder charges against someone who kills a child under age 14 while abusing the child.
The law was named for Shelby Andrews, 10, who was tortured and killed in her Syracuse home in 2006 by her father and stepmother, Ryan and Angela Andrews. They both accepted plea bargains, are serving prison terms and cannot get a parole board date until 2041. The Andrewses could not be charged with capital murder under the laws on the books in 2006.
The gruesome case sparked public outrage and, urged on by Davis County prosecutors — including Rawlings — and law enforcement officials, state legislators quickly enacted the new law.
In 2009, prosecutors in Utah County used Shelby's Law when charging Victor Gardea with aggravated murder for punching his 4-month-old daughter, Jasmin, to death in 2009. However, Gardea pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of murder, a first-degree felony, as part of a plea bargain and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Shelby's biological mother, Kim Hale, was at Friday's hearing to support Ethan and his biological father, Joe Stacy, who lives in Virginia.
"It brings back all those memories we went through the first time," she said, standing with her husband Guy Hale. "If anyone knows what Joe is going through, it's us."
Kim Hale said it was her opinion that the Sloops should enter into a plea deal now and not draw out the court proceedings.
Also in the courthouse Friday was a woman collecting signatures for a new effort called "Ethan's Law." A petition drive was started in Virginia calling for new laws regarding child custody. The proposed Ethan's Law calls for judges to give due process to both fathers and mothers and not just automatically give the mother custody rights, said signature collector August Teuscher.
The proposed law calls on courts to look at the people living in each house, conduct welfare checks and psychological evaluations and assess the "boyfriend factor."
The petition is available online and currently about 4,000 people have signed it.
Rawlings said his office was "touched by those who have expressed support for Ethan Stacy and his family."
Ethan had only lived in Utah a little over a week when he was killed. He was flown to Utah because of a custody agreement from Stephanie and Joe Stacy's divorce that required Ethan to spend the summer with his mother.
Although hardly anyone in Utah knew Ethan in life, his death has impacted people nationwide.
A handful of tearful and angry protesters gathered at the Sloops' initial court hearing two weeks ago, and residents of the apartment complex where Ethan briefly lived have held two candlelight vigils for the little boy. The Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Ogden will donate 10 percent of all dinner proceeds raised on June 1 to Joe Stacy. Another fundraiser is scheduled June 11 at the Layton Hills Mall.
Ethan was laid to rest in Richlands, Va., last week.
Contributing: Linda Thomson