OGDEN -- A judge has denied a prosecution bid to replace Jacob Ethridge's public defenders, the last obstacle to setting a trial date on capital homicide charges.
Ethridge faces the death penalty, only the third such case in Weber County since 2001, in the July 2008 shooting of two women in downtown Ogden.
Trial was set for Nov. 1-16 at Friday's status conference. A penalty phase also was scheduled, in the event of conviction, for a weeklong hearing beginning Dec. 2.
"I don't think we want to be doing a penalty phase during the Thanksgiving holiday," 2nd District Judge W. Brent West said. A jury would decide among sentences of death, life and life without parole.
Ethridge's request for a furlough from Weber County Jail to visit his dentist also was denied at Friday's hearing. Officials said they expect to have a jail dentist in place as soon as next week.
Deputy Weber County Attorney Gary Heward told the judge prosecutors would respond to a defense motion to remove prospective Mormon jurors who still ascribe to the lapsed doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding blood atonement, a common motion in death penalty cases. Blood atonement requires the shedding of blood as penance for the shedding of another's blood.
Public defenders Randy Richards and Bernie Allen have been assigned to Ethridge since September 2008. But shortly after their status changed with the county's remodeling of the public defender system this year, prosecutors filed a motion for substitute counsel.
They cited state law that, with some exceptions, does not allow appointing attorneys who are not contracted public defenders if a municipality already has a contracted public defender staff.
The exception in the law is "a finding that there is a compelling reason to authorize or designate a non-contracting attorney or resource," West wrote in his ruling issued from the bench.
The most compelling reason the judge found was that Richards and Allen were appointed as Ethridge's public defenders almost two years ago.
"In defendant's case, he has clearly developed a rapport with his appointed counsel, he has consulted and planned with them for a significant length of time, he has confidences in their legal skills and abilities, he trusts their judgment, and he wants them to remain on the case," wrote West.
While agreeing with the position of the Weber County Attorney's Office that a defendant doesn't have the right to choose his appointed counsel, West wrote that "once counsel has been appointed, his choice of attorneys and the development of an attorney-client relationship are presumptive factors that, unless rebutted, are reasons for the court not to substitute counsel."
In arguing to keep Allen and Richards on the case, Utah ACLU Legal Director Darcy Goddard said Utah's public defender system is flawed as it is.
Utah ranks 48th in the nation in funding of indigent defense, she said, spending about $5 per capita compared to more than $11 per capita nationwide. The state chapter is in the midst of a study of the state's indigent defense system.
Heward objected to a dental furlough for Ethridge, saying he was listed in the highest risk category at the jail, level one of six.
Ethridge would be a flight risk "because of what he's facing," Heward said.
Ethridge's dental issue is not "in any way life-threatening pain" but just teeth that are "bothering him" from prior reconstructive surgery, he said.
Officials are close to signing a contract with a licensed dentist to provide regular weekly services at the jail, Heward said.