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Layton man found guilty of murder in toddler's potty-training death

Joshua Schoenenberger enters the courtroom for a preliminary hearing in Farmington on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. Schoenenberger is accused of fatally beating his girlfriend's 2-year-old son to death.
Joshua Schoenenberger enters the courtroom for a preliminary hearing in Farmington on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. Schoenenberger is accused of fatally beating his girlfriend's 2-year-old son to death.
Rick Egan

FARMINGTON — A jury on Friday found a Layton man guilty of murder three years after he fatally beat his girlfriend's 2-year-old son out of rage over potty training.

Joshua Schoenenberger, 37, did not show emotion as a court clerk read the verdict and bailiffs rushed to handcuff him. Members of his family gathered outside the courtroom, crying and wide-eyed. A few feet away, relatives of the toddler, JJ Sieger Jr., shed tears of relief.

After the boy's death, "I promised him that his little two years wouldn't be in vain and his life would mean something," said his aunt, Nicole Sieger. "And I think today we were able to keep that promise. This is huge for us to be able for us to move forward."

A jury of six men and three women determined Schoenenberger is guilty of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, after about two hours of deliberation Friday afternoon in Farmington's 2nd District Court.

Prosecutors told jurors earlier Friday that Schoenenberger admitted to police that he squeezed the boy and stepped on him after the child laughed and urinated while in his arms in May 2015. They argued he knew at the time that the force he used was enough to potentially kill the toddler.

"Who had motive? Who was the person that was angry at JJ that night?" deputy Davis County attorney Susan Hunt asked during closing arguments Friday.

Defense attorney Ed Brass countered that the state failed to bring any DNA evidence that would indicate who dealt certain injuries, even though investigators took swabs from Schoenenberger and the boy's mother. And the defendant finally told officers he accidentally injured the boy simply to end a police interrogation that had spanned 13 hours and included officers telling him repeatedly that a real man would take responsibility, Brass said.

"The things people say under that amount of stress for that amount of time aren’t reliable," Brass said. "None of this adds up to aggravated murder."

A medical expert testified Thursday that blows to the child's abdomen, possibly from his mother's efforts to revive him, could have led to his death, Brass added. And close-up pictures of the boy's bruises that were shown to the jury do little to connect his client to the boy's death, he said.

The Friday verdict capped off a weeklong trial with testimony from more than a dozen witnesses, including doctors and JJ's family members.

Outside the courtroom, Schoenenberger's mother said she did not wish to comment on the verdict. Brass also declined to reflect on the jury's unanimous conclusion, saying jurors have a difficult job and he would never criticize them.

In May 2015, JJ was taken off life support two days after he was taken to the hospital. He succumbed to extensive injuries, including tearing in his colon, damage in his abdomen, deep bruises and trauma to his head.

Schoenenberger and JJ's mother, Jasmine Bridgeman, offered changing narratives, prosecutors noted. In 2016, Bridgeman was sentenced to at least one and up to 15 years in prison after admitting she lied to doctors and officers about how her son was fatally injured.

Prosecutors on Friday portrayed Schoenenberger as increasingly frustrated with JJ in 2015 because the boy ripped out blinds in their home, drew in magic marker on the walls, defecated in his room and would go to the bathroom in his diaper right after sitting on the toilet for 45 minutes during potty training.

"The defendant was enraged at JJ Sieger because JJ Sieger was being a typical 2-year-old," Hunt said.

On May 9, 2015, as JJ, who was potty training, soiled his diaper, Schoenenberger held feces in the boy's face, then took him to a bathroom to wash off, Hunt argued. As he held JJ out at eye level, the boy urinated and defecated, and Schoenenberger squeezed him before dropping him onto the tile floor and stepping on him.

He told police he slipped in the tub and "squashed" the boy, but didn't mean to apply that much pressure or hurt him, according to a video shown in court laced with expletives from both Schoenenberger and officers.

A Utah law allows capital punishment as a potential sentence in cases where a child's death results from abuse, but prosecutors two years ago said they would not to seek the death penalty for Schoenenberger.

Family members of the toddler said they are pleased with the conviction because it will prevent the same man from subjecting any other children to the horrors that JJ experienced.

"He's with us every day," Nicole Sieger said of her nephew.

Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 26.