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Family of Vanessa Hart’s mother wants death penalty for father, girlfriend

Slain girl’s father took her for weekend and kept her, relative says

SHARE Family of Vanessa Hart’s mother wants death penalty for father, girlfriend

SALT LAKE CITY — The last time Stephanie Alfaro saw her little girl, the 4-year-old was undergoing surgery in a futile attempt to save her life.

That hospital visit was also the first time Alfaro had seen her daughter in 1½ years, said Stephanie Medina, Vanessa's step-grandmother.

Little Vanessa Hart later died from massive head injuries that police say were caused by her father's girlfriend.

Alfaro had agreed to let the girl's father, Clinton Hart, 21, take Vanessa and her younger brother, Anthony, for a weekend, according to Medina. But the woman didn't see her daughter again until 18 months later when she got word Vanessa was clinging to life.

Clinton Hart rarely responded to Alfaro's text messages and phone calls, Medina said. "She'd try to go where he was living a year and a half ago and he'd just up and moved," Medina said. Occasionally, Hart would tell the woman he'd bring the children back, but he never did.

Hart and his girlfriend, Marina Navarro, 21, are both now facing charges in connection with Vanessa's death. Navarro is charged with aggravated murder, a first-degree felony; and three counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony. Hart is charged with murder, a first-degree felony; or an alternative charge of child abuse homicide, a second-degree felony; and two counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony.

Alfaro wasn't at Wednesday's court hearing in 3rd District Court because Medina said she was too "emotional" to be there. Medina sat outside the hearing with the girl's aunts, who were holding pictures of Vanessa and a poster calling for "Justice for Vanessa Hart."

"We're doing OK so far," Medina said. "We're just trying to understand why. How could they do this? We've got questions, and we want answers. It's just really difficult. We want justice for what was done."

Medina has a clear idea of what justice would mean for Vanessa, whom she called a "happy little child who loved to play."

"I believe in eye for an eye, just like the Sloops," she said. "We want justice for her life like they did for little Ethan. … Give them the death penalty."

The case has some similarities to that of Nathan and Stephanie Sloop, who face aggravated murder charges in the death of 4-year-old Ethan Stacy. Prosecutors have not expressly stated their intent to pursue the death penalty in that case but have indicated it is a strong possibility.

Vanessa died June 13 from what doctors at Primary Children's Medical Center described as "multiple severe injuries, including massive trauma to (her) head, massive swelling of (her) brain" and neurological damage possibly caused by several impacts to the head, according to court documents.

Prosecutors say Hart left for work around 8:30 a.m. that day and returned home after receiving a text message from Navarro that said Vanessa had fallen down the stairs, was lethargic and was having a hard time breathing.

When Hart arrived home around 11:30 a.m., he found Vanessa unconscious, the charges state.

Doctors told police Vanessa's head injuries could not have been caused by falling down a flight of carpeted stairs, and older injuries were discovered during an autopsy, including bruising on the girl's chest, according to the charges.

Though Hart and Navarro both have been charged in the case, attorneys for the pair insist the circumstances in Navarro's case are different than those in Hart's. Navarro could face the death penalty if convicted, if prosecutors choose to pursue it. Hart's attorneys believe the murder charge against him won't stick.

For now, their cases are on separate timelines. Navarro is six months pregnant and is expected to deliver Hart's child on Oct. 3, leading her attorneys to ask the judge to postpone the woman's next court appearance until November.

"Our first concern is the safe arrival of her child," defense attorney Denise Porter said. "We want our main focus to be on her health and the health of her unborn child and having that child properly placed."

Given the severity of the charges leveled against Navarro, the woman will not be considered for release from jail, in spite of the pregnancy.

Bail initially was set at a slightly more than $1 million for each defendant. But 3rd District Judge Ann Boyden on Wednesday reduced Hart's bail to $700,000.

During the hearing Wednesday, Hart's attorney, Steven Shapiro, called the initial bail amount "outrageously high," considering that it is believed Hart was at work when the fatal injuries were incurred.

Shapiro was adamant that the current charges are "absurd" because, he said, Hart's being aware that his girlfriend caused some bruising on the girl was not reason enough to believe she'd end up dead. Shapiro asked that bail be reduced to $10,000.

"There is an enormous leap between him knowing the child was abused to being criminally charged in that child's death," Shapiro said. "I don't believe there's a factual, legal basis for a murder charge. The allegations are about bruising and failure to protect."

Shapiro said the girl had never suffered serious injuries prior to her death and the state Division of Child and Family Services had never been called to the home, and those are the kinds of events that would have alerted Hart to the extent of the violence.

But prosecutor Cristina Ortega said that while Hart may not have been home the day Vanessa was killed, he was culpable in the "pattern of physical abuse" that preceded the girl's death. Ortega said Hart was the one who often directed Vanessa's discipline, and he once bought makeup when Navarro said it was needed to cover the girl's bruises.

Boyden agreed to reduce Hart's bail amount but noted that Hart poses a "significant danger" to the community and faces charges indicative of very violent behavior. Hart will have a preliminary hearing July 7. Navarro has a scheduling conference slated for Nov. 9.

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com