Hundreds of well-wishers have gathered in Grundy, Virginia to say a final goodbye to four-year-old Ethan Stacy on May 19th, 2010. Ethan's birth father, Joe Stacy, said he is overwhelmed by the support he and his family has seen from strangers around the country. Utahns of every stripe are likewise outraged. Mormon doctrine on the eternal disposition of those who die in childhood provides some comfort.
But now, attention will be directed towards those who caused Ethan's death; stepfather Nathanael Sloop, whose repeated physical abuse of Ethan directly caused it, and the boy's birth mother, Stephanie Sloop, whose actions facilitated the fatal chain of events. We already know from the account of Nathanael's previous wife, Jennifer Freeman, that Nathanael was violent and had multiple personalities; Nathanael's lawyer is currently attempting to parlay this into an insanity defense (although one of Nathanael's former co-workers rejects the mental illness claim). In this separate story, Dr. David Tomb provides a more detailed explanation of MPD. We also already know from the account of Carla Jones that Stephanie Sloop did not take Ethan to Utah for the summer because she cared about him, but merely to get back at her ex-husband Joe Stacy.
Prosecutors are taking their time filing charges in Ethan's death in order to avoid any mistakes that could derail a criminal case. While both Nathanael and Stephanie Sloop have already been jailed on suspicion of aggravated murder, a charge which could result in the death penalty, they're waiting for a medical examiner to rule on a cause of death before actually filing charges. Other charges being considered are child abuse, a second-degree felony; obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony; and desecration of a dead body, a human corpse, a third-degree felony.
I would question applying the death penalty to Stephanie Sloop. While she was a facilitator, it is unclear if she was a perpetrator. We need to distinguish between the two roles when prescribing punishment. And while Stephanie was a known manipulator, it is quite possible that she was so horrified to find out she married a monster that she was frozen into facilitation, much like a deer trapped in headlights. Many people with personality disorders show you their "best side" until they "lock you in", then they show their real selves. Prison for Stephanie Sloop -- yes. Execution -- no.
But the death penalty clearly would apply to Nathanael Sloop. From almost the very day Ethan Stacy arrived in Utah, Nathanael was abusing and torturing him, a defenseless four-year-old kid. This is about as heinous as it gets. The problem is that the death penalty is very controversial, and, through modern DNA techniques, we've found that some people were either mistakenly executed in the past or were almost mistakenly executed.
The BalancedPolitics website offers side-by-side bullet arguments both for and against the death penalty without actually taking sides. Although I personally support the death penalty, I respect those who oppose it; they craft worthwhile arguments against it. I'll address some of their leading arguments below:
(1). Financial costs to taxpayers of capital punishment are several times that of keeping someone in prison for life. Opponents contend that carrying out one death sentence can cost 2-5 times more than keeping that same criminal in prison for the rest of his life, citing the endless appeals, additional required procedures, and legal wrangling that drag the process out. However, the problem here is NOT the death penalty itself, but the attendant process. Solution: Shorten the appellate process; limit it to just two appeals. One appeal at the highest state appellate level, and one appeal at the highest federal appellate level. Individual death penalty cases should never be heard at the Supreme Court. Implemented properly, this could limit the "legal wrangling" down to as little as three years.
(2). The endless appeals and required additional procedures clog our court system. My proposed solution in paragraph (1) would mitigate this problem.
(3). Life in prison is a worse punishment and a more effective deterrent. This may be true, but does it make sense to house, feed, and clothe at taxpayer expense for as long as 50 years someone who has committed capital murder? My answer - no!
(4). The possibility exists that innocent men and women may be put to death. This is a legitimate argument, and we cannot guarantee it will never happen. But modern forensic methods and a two-step appeals process should make this problem negligible. Likewise, we cannot guarantee that you will never die in a traffic accident, but we still allow people to buy and sell motor vehicles.
(5). Some jury members are reluctant to convict if it means putting someone to death. This is also a legitimate argument, but it is up to the prosecutor to make a case for death beyond reasonable doubt. Juries can and will vote for the death penalty if convinced beyond reasonable doubt.
(6). Mentally ill patients may be put to death. Opponents of the death claim that many people are simply born with defects to their brain that cause them to act a certain way. No amount of drugs, schooling, rehabilitation, or positive reinforcement will change them. Is it fair that someone should be murdered just because they were unlucky enough to be born with a brain defect. But is it fair that they be released to society without the ability to change? Furthermore, if they are clearly incompetent to distinguish right from wrong, is it fair to keep them locked in a defective mortal tabernacle for the rest of their lives? Wouldn't that be cruel and unusual punishment for a murderer who was mentally ill? Think about it.
The death penalty should be used thoughtfully, sparingly, and only after careful deliberation and review to be effective. But if anyone is a candidate for the death penalty, Nathanael Swoop is it.