The Justice Files: Court shutdown delaying justice

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) –  The Staffords thought they were headed to trial in March.

Their son, Cory Haney was murdered in 2019 and a friend was facing charges.

But when March arrived, so did Covid-19.  The Coronavirus pandemic put all court proceedings on halt.  The trial was eventually moved to July.  The Staffords were hoping they’d finally get their day in court. 

The Utah judicial council and the supreme court continued its ban on all in-court proceedings including trials.  The trial for the defendant Jesse Bruce was on hold once again.

In 2019, Salt Lake City police responded to an emergency call at Haney’s home.  When they arrived they found Haney dead.  His parents were out of town.

“My son was gone,” said Kay Lynn Stafford.  “We had to scramble and get a flight back and our nightmare began.”  

They learned Haney’s longtime friend and roommate was the suspect.  Bruce had moved in with Haney and told police that it was self-defense.  But the state’s medical examiner determined it was a homicide based on the multiple stab wounds to Haney’s neck and head. He was charged with first degree murder.

“This was a school friend from junior high that needed help,” said Haney’s mother.  “(Cory Haney)  was a true friend.  He always helped the underdog.”

And that’s what the Staffords said their son had done for Bruce.  Haney offered a room to Bruce who was down on his luck.
For the past 15-months they’ve followed the court process.  In late June the case was put on hold for the indefinite future. During that hearing Judge Richard McKelvie who is overseeing the case indicated the state’s case against Bruce should be moving forward.  

“The allegations in the probable cause statement appear pretty sound,” Judge McKelvie told attorneys involved in the case.

But he said the pandemic is overruling him.

“Obviously we’re in uncharted territory here,” Judge McKelvie said.  “We have no idea when we’re going to try this case.  Our numbers in terms of the corona virus in the last week or so have not been going in the right direction.”

The Stafford’s case is one of many that have been affected by the shutdown.  The judicial council has eased restrictions.  For now, video conferences are the only means of carrying out justice. 

But the courts are off limits for in-person hearings or trials.  According to court spokesman they’re relying on the health experts to give them the green light.  Geoff Fattah said once Coronavirus cases decline in a county, they are open to easing restrictions once more.  He said Salt Lake County is far from that point.

“It has not been decreasing and so that would need to happen,”  Fattah said.  “Because with the courts we take everybody’s health and safety seriously. We know that people are frustrated.”

Fattah said it would be difficult for a jury to sit side by side even with precautions.  He also said the public attending trials would also be a big concern. 

“There are a lot of persons out there that want to see a return to jury trials,” he said.  “We understand that.  A lot of our judges are frustrated because they’re seeing a growing back log.”

Adding to the Stafford’s frustration is Bruce’s recent release from jail.  He was locked up after his arrest and bail was set at one million dollars.  But at the June hearing Judge McKelvie reduced the bond to $250,000.  Court records indicate that Bruce paid $21,000 in either cash or collateral for his release.  By law, a person only has to pay 10% of the set bond unless the judge requires “cash only.”

Kent Morgan, a former prosecutor and now a defense attorney said reducing bail for a murder suspect is quite rare.

“It is unusual to have a bond reduced at all when there’s a murder case,” said Kent Morgan.  “When it’s a first degree murder case the bail will be set so high that its unlikely that anybody will be released.” 

Jail and court records showed that Bruce was released from jail July 28th and fitted the next day for a GPS tracking device.  It’s another sore spot with the Staffords.

“I am so mortified by the fact that he’s able to get a timeout and my son Cory doesn’t have that right,” said Stafford.  “How is that possible for the law to allow that to happen.”

Bruce is scheduled to return to court next week.  The judge will present an update on the future of the case.

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