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Prosecutors haven’t made a decision on seeking the death penalty for grandparents and an uncle accused of torturing and beating to death a 12-year-old boy.

Grandparents, James Sasser Jr. and Patricia Batts, and uncle, 14-year-old James Sasser III, are each charged with felony deliberate homicide in the death of James Alex Hurley.

Sasser Jr. and Batts are being held at the Gallatin County jail. Sasser III, who prosecutors said will be tried as an adult, is being held at the Yellowstone Youth Services Center in Billings.

Bjorn Boyer, prosecutor in the case, said the county attorney’s office is still trying to figure out if the death penalty would be appropriate in this case. The investigation is still ongoing, he said, and Boyer hasn’t had a chance to sit down with the victim’s family.

“Those are all things that we’re still looking at,” Boyer said.

Under Montana law, deliberate homicide by means of torture is one of the aggravating circumstances that would allow the county attorney’s office to seek the death penalty.

Boyer has said that he believed “the systematic torture and beatings perpetrated on the victim in this case led to his death.”

Earlier this month, deputies found suspicious circumstances surrounding Hurley’s death and launched an investigation, according to charging documents. A doctor’s preliminary autopsy report said the boy died from blunt force trauma to the back of his head, but the doctor wanted to wait for a toxicology report to give a final opinion.

Detectives searched the grandparents’ and uncle’s phone and found several videos that showed the family torturing Hurley, court documents say.

Police said in charging documents that videos show Batts physically and verbally abusing Hurley. Another video taken by Hurley’s uncle shows Hurley wearing a t-shirt outside in January while the rest of the family has coats on, police said. The 14-year-old sent the video to Sasser Jr., and included a message that read, “he ain’t limping see I told you.”

The family told detectives that Hurley heard voices in his head that told him to kill people, but Boyer has said they later admitted exaggerating Hurley’s mental health issues.

Detectives were unable to find any record of the family reporting Hurley’s behavior to law enforcement or any attempts to get Hurley medical or psychiatric help.

Hurley was taken out of school in West Yellowstone in September 2019, and police said Hurley did not have contact with people outside the family for several months.

The last death penalty carried out in Montana was in 2006, according to the nonprofit death penalty information center. David Dawson was executed by injection that year at the Montana State Prison for killing three people.

William Jay Gollehon and Ronald Allen Smith are serving death sentences at the Montana State Prison, according to the Department of Corrections. Gollehon and Smith each have been convicted of deliberate homicide and kidnapping.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at or at 406-582-2630.

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