OGDEN -- Matthew Stewart's long-awaited preliminary hearing begins Wednesday, to air out over its three days exactly what happened during the Jan. 4 police shootout at his home that left one officer dead and five wounded.
Friday afternoon, even after 10 months developing the case, the prosecution team in the Weber County Attorney's Office was still interviewing witnesses in preparation for this week's spectacle in 2nd District Court.
Stewart faces execution if convicted in the death of Ogden officer Jared Francom. He faces seven possible life sentences for allegedly shooting at seven other officers that night, hitting five.
Judge Noel Hyde's decorum order for the hearing sets aside one row of seats for the expected media turnout. Several rows have been reserved for the families of the victims and several rows for Stewart supporters. The hearing has been moved from Hyde's regular courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse on Grant Avenue to courtroom 2D, the largest in the building with roughly twice the available seating.
A preliminary hearing carries the lowest standard of evidence in the judicial system, probable cause, and is meant only to ensure evidence is sufficient to advance a case to trial.
Probable cause, attorneys explain, can literally be described as events probably happened the way authorities describe them. At trial, the standard of evidence is much higher, where jurors must decide guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Because of the minimal standard of evidence, the average preliminary hearing for even a murder in the Ogden courts rarely lasts more than two to three hours, making for a busy morning typically.
But for Stewart, prosecutors will be calling as many as 17 witnesses, according to the subpoenas listed for the case, an unheard of amount for a preliminary hearing. But six police officers shot while serving a pot search warrant is also unheard of.
In the 10 months since the shootings, officials have searched their memories for a case locally approaching the scale of the Jan. 4 altercation. Recalling the last time a preliminary hearing was set for three days is also elusive.
Comparisons have been made nationally -- four Tacoma patrol officers killed by a gunman in a coffee shop in 2009 as they updated reports on their laptops; two Detroit detectives fatally shot in 2011 trying to arrest a murder suspect.
The case has also united critics from typically opposing camps -- marijuana advocates and Second Amendment right-to-bear-arms zealots have supported Stewart on various websites and Facebook pages.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks police casualties, 36 officers have been shot to death as of Oct. 27 this year in the line of duty nationwide.
That compares to 56 in 2011. Adding in traffic fatalities and other causes, between 150 and 200 officers die on duty every year, at the rate of one every 53 hours, according to the memorial fund's web site.
Stewart was also shot four times, and has spent some time shuttling between the Weber County Jail and hospital operating rooms.
The night of Jan. 4 the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force was serving a "knock-and-announce" search warrant subsequent to a marijuana distribution investigation. Agents had entered Stewart's home with guns drawn when there was no answer at the door, according to court documents, and had cleared the basement of the home before Stewart allegedly opened fire.
Stewart is also charged with knowingly producing or dispensing a controlled substance, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. After the shooting, 16 marijuana plants were seized from Stewart's home at 3268 Jackson Ave., court document say.
Prosecutors had seized the home at one point in forfeiture proceedings, intending to sell it off as tied to drug proceeds. They relented when bank records showed it had no equity. The home remains sealed off, out of the Stewart family's control, maintained as evidence.