The Utah Supreme Court has issued a stay, canceling for the third time the retrial of convicted murderer Steven Ray James. The delay will allow his attorneys to challenge the state's witness immunity statute.
James, 40, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the 1986 death of his infant son, Steven Roy James. James said the baby was kidnapped from a parked car while he was in a Logan drugstore. After a massive effort to find the child, his body was found bound and weighted in a marsh just west of Logan and James subsequently was arrested.But James has been awaiting a new trial since the Utah Supreme Court overturned his first-degree felony murder conviction in October 1991 on grounds that a new witness could possibly shed light on the case.
The witness, Kenneth Lisner, has yet to appear for trial.
Defense attorneys say Lisner, a former Utah State Prison inmate, would testify that another inmate, Ronald Peterson, fabricated testimony that he heard James admit to killing his 3-month-old son in 1986. However, defense attorneys argue that Peterson later told Lisner that he made up the story in order to obtain better treatment from prosecutors.
But defense attorney Nathan Hult said prosecutors have been uncooperative and have threatened to arrest Lisner if he comes to Utah to testify.
"We found out that he had absconded from his parole in Nevada and that took us by surprise," he said. "But obviously with that approach, there's no way we can convince him to come here."
Hult contends there is a Utah statute designed to protect out-of-state witnesses, even if they are wanted by law enforcement officials in other states. He said the law has never been reviewed by the Utah Supreme Court.
During arguments before the Utah Supreme Court Dec. 7, Hult will argue that Lisner should be protected if he comes to Utah to testify.
"Sometimes you just need to bite the bullet and say we're not going to arrest him," Hult said. "Otherwise they deprive Steven Ray James of the right to a new trial."
Meanwhile, James is being held in the Cache County Jail without bail and Lisner, who is in California, phones Hult daily.