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Prosecutors hope to circumvent Utah’s new, controversial self-defense law in 2019 murder case

SALT LAKE CITY – Murder suspect Jesse Bruce appeared in court Friday for a new type of hearing created by Utah’s new self-defense law, but prosecutors presented an argument that could mean the controversial law will not apply.

Bruce, 43, is accused of stabbing 40-year-old Cory Haney to death in March 2019. According to court documents, Bruce told police he killed Haney in self-defense, but investigators reported evidence found at the scene of the deadly confrontation led them to believe Bruce was the aggressor.

Instead of moving forward with Bruce’s scheduled October jury trial, which was already delayed multiple times due to the pandemic and prosecutor turnover, it was postponed once again last fall. A new type of hearing – called a justification hearing – was scheduled for Friday, Jan. 7.

The latest delay is due to H.B. 227, Utah’s new self-defense law, which went into effect in May.

H.B. 227 triggers a new pre-trial process for cases in which the accused claims self-defense. Prosecutors must now prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant did not act in self-defense or in the defense of others. If prosecutors cannot prove that an individual’s use of force was not justified in a justification hearing before a trial, the case is dismissed before it ever goes to a jury.

In November, the KSL investigators revealed unintended consequences of the new law that was originally pitched as a way to save people who act in self-defense from the financial expense of defending themselves in a trial.

Exceptions to H.B. 227 include cases in which an individual is accused of an unlawful use of force against a law enforcement officer and cases involving domestic violence – an exemption prosecutors hope to take advantage of in Bruce’s case.

In a new court filing, prosecutors say Haney’s death was ruled a homicide, caused by multiple stab wounds to the neck and head. It also says Bruce and Haney were roommates.

Cory Haney. (Ken Fall)

Prosecutors are now arguing the new self-defense law should not apply to the case because while Bruce and Haney were not romantic partners, they were co-habitants – a situation prosecutors say is enough to establish domestic violence as a factor in the case.

It’s a claim Third District Judge Richard McKelvie said must be explored before Bruce can have a justification hearing.

“The fact that the state has made that allegation now calls into question whether or not the defendant is entitled to this hearing,” he said Friday.

A preliminary hearing is now scheduled for next month to determine whether the case involves domestic violence.

“We still were re-victimized,” said Haney’s Mother, Kay Lynn Stafford, after Friday’s brief hearing.

Stafford brought framed photos of her son to court for family members to display during the hearing. She’s publicly criticized H.B. 227 and previously spoke with the KSL investigators about its impact on her family.

Cory Haney’s family members held photos of him during a court hearing for his alleged killer on Jan. 7, 2022. (Josh Szymanik/KSL TV)

After Friday’s development, Haney’s family is encouraged that the domestic violence claim means they might not have to go through an extra evidentiary hearing to get to the long-awaited trial or risk the potential outcome of the case against Bruce being dismissed before a jury has the chance to consider all the evidence.

“There’s always that little thought in the back of your mind that, ‘What if that happens?’” Stafford said.

She said her family has experienced months of delays due to the passage of H.B. 227 and she wants to see the new law changed.

“These are unintended consequences, I believe,” she said. “But it needs some major work with some due diligence, or it needs to just be repealed.”

Through a spokesperson Friday, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill declined to comment further on the case outside of court.

Defense attorney Austin Mort, who is representing Bruce, wrote in an emailed statement, “We will treat the domestic violence allegation like any other factual allegation in this case. If there is a viable argument against it, and if it’s in our client’s interest to make that argument, we will fully explore it. Especially if it determines whether we are entitled to a pretrial justification hearing.”

Bruce’s trial date has been postponed until June but could change again depending on the outcome of the upcoming preliminary hearing.

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