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2019 murder case headed to trial after prosecutors dodge Utah's new self-defense law

Murder suspect Jesse Bruce appeared in court. Bruce, 43, is accused of stabbing 40-year-old Cory Haney to death in March 2019.

Murder suspect Jesse Bruce appeared in court. Bruce, 43, is accused of stabbing 40-year-old Cory Haney to death in March 2019. (Josh Szymanik, KSL TV)

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SALT LAKE CITY – Prosecutors are expected to present a 2019 murder case to a jury this summer, after Utah's new and controversial self-defense law triggered a several-month delay in going to trial.

Jesse 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.

An October trial for Bruce was pushed back after Bruce, through his attorney, requested a new type of pretrial hearing created by HB227, which went into effect in May 2021.

Under HB227, people claiming self-defense now have an opportunity to get their charges dismissed without going to trial. Defendants can request a justification hearing in which prosecutors must 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 during the limited, pretrial hearing, the case is dismissed before it ever goes to a jury and prosecutors are barred from refiling charges.

Bruce's case was highlighted in a KSL Investigation that revealed unintended consequences of the new law, including delays in justice for victims of crime and their families.

Last month, on the day of Bruce's scheduled hearing to determine whether the case would be dismissed or go to trial, prosecutors unveiled an argument to circumvent the new law by seeking to have the case classified as a case of domestic violence.

Exceptions to HB227 include cases in which an individual is accused of an unlawful use of force against a law enforcement officer and cases involving domestic violence.

While Bruce and Haney were not romantic partners, prosecutors successfully argued during a hearing on Tuesday that the two were co-habitants, a situation meeting the legal threshold to establish domestic violence as a factor in the case.

"I don't believe that it's appropriate, under the circumstances, to entitle the defendant to a justification hearing under the statute that we previously discussed," said Third District Judge Richard McKelvie on Tuesday after siding with prosecutors on the domestic violence distinction.

Bruce is set to stand trial on a single felony count of first-degree murder starting on June 15. Haney's mother, Kay Lynn Stafford, remains a vocal critic of the HB227, telling the KSL Investigators in January that despite the creativity of prosecutors assigned to the case, her family has still suffered unintended consequences of the new law.

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Daniella Rivera
Daniella Rivera joined the KSL team in September 2021. She’s an investigative journalist with a passion for serving the public through seeking and reporting truth.


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