FARMINGTON -- Spousal privilege will be a non-issue in upcoming preliminary hearings for a couple accused of killing 4-year-old Ethan Stacy, prosecutors said.
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said Utah law prohibits a spouse from evoking spousal privilege when the case involves "the possible abuse of a natural child of either party."
Nathanael Sloop, 31, and his wife, Stephanie, 27, are each charged with aggravated murder. Ethan's body was found buried near Powder Mountain on May 10.
Both are also charged with second-degree felony child abuse, second-degree felony obstruction of justice and third-degree felony abuse or desecration of a body in connection with Ethan's death.
Ethan came to Utah from Florida on May 1 to spend the summer with Stephanie Sloop, his mother, and his stepfather, Nathanael Sloop, following a divorce settlement. Both are accused of abusing Ethan for days in their Layton apartment before he died May 9.
The Layton couple appeared in court Friday in separate hearings; preliminary hearings for both were set for February.
Rawlings said having separate preliminary hearings and trials is not only what defense attorneys want, but "strategically it is to our advantage to have them separate and the fairest way to do it."
Nathan Sloop sat next to his attorneys, Richard Mauro and Scott Williams, during his hearing Friday morning. Judge Michael G. Allphin set Feb. 1-3, 2011, for his preliminary hearing, where prosecutors have to show there is enough evidence to support the charges.
Stephanie Sloop stood next to her attorney, Mary Corporon, at the podium during her hearing Friday afternoon. Her preliminary hearing is set for Feb. 9-11, 2011.
Before both hearings on Friday, attorneys met with Allphin in his chamber to discuss possible dates for the preliminary hearings and some issues. One of those issues may be spousal privilege.
Rawlings said after Nathan Sloop's hearing, "There are no privilege issues in this case," when asked if that may be a concern.
Utah law allows for spousal privilege in two instances, said Weber State University associate professor Samuel T. Newton, who was not at the hearing.
Spouses who are currently married to each other cannot be forced to testify against each other. But a spouse can volunteer to testify against the other spouse, said Newton, who is with the university's criminal justice department.
Also, if an individual tells his or her spouse something in confidence, that spouse cannot divulge the information even if they get divorced, Newton said.
Stephanie Sloop's attorney filed an annulment petition on June 25. The Sloops exchanged wedding vows at the Davis County Memorial Courthouse on May 5, just five days before her son's disfigured body was found.
Corporon has also filed a petition asking the court to seal the records of the annulment proceedings.
Rawlings said prosecutors could do a preliminary hearing now on either defendant concerning the murder charges, but the defense needs time to review more than 10,000 pages of documents, several hundred CDs containing evidence and testimony, plus interview expert witnesses to prepare for the preliminary hearings.
The normal length for a preliminary hearing for felony charges is usually one afternoon, Rawlings said, but there is so much evidence in both cases that three days have been scheduled for each defendant.
And the preliminary hearings will also give prosecutors a "chance to test the strength of the case because we will only present the nuts and the bolts of it," he said.
The other issue facing prosecutors, Rawlings said, will be the cause of Ethan's death.
Expert witnesses will be called by both sides and "it will take center stage" at the hearings in February, Rawlings said.
The Sloops each face the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.
Prosecutors have 60 days after a felony arraignment hearing to file notice of their intent to seek the death penalty. The felony arraignment is scheduled after the preliminary hearing.