Dates set for change of venue

Elisa Baker’s chains and shackles rattled as she shuffled into Catawba County Superior Court on Thursday for a pre-trial hearing.

The woman, accused of the 2010 murder of her 10-year-old disabled stepdaughter, did not speak as her judge, defense attorney and state prosecution discussed an arraignment and possible change of venue for her case.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid set Baker’s arraignment for September, but said he will first hear a motion Aug. 1 about moving the trial because of publicity surrounding the case.

Baker’s attorney, Scott Reilly, filed a change of venue motion this week and wants the defendant’s trial moved. He thinks that a large amount of prejudicial publicity has made it unlikely for a fair 12-person jury to be found in Catawba County, according to the motion.

Reilly said hundreds of newspaper articles and numerous television broadcasts about the case make it almost impossible for an unbiased jury to be selected in the county.

Catawba County District Attorney Jay Gaither disagrees.

“From the beginning, we have said that a fair and impartial jury can be found here,” Gaither said, adding that the decision is ultimately up to Kincaid, who will hear arguments from both sides about the change of venue request Aug. 1.

If the change of venue does occur, it can only be moved to another courthouse in the region. Gaither said according to state statutes, a change of venue must occur in an adjoining prosecutorial district — meaning that if Kincaid approves the venue change, the trial can only be moved to a county within a neighboring court district.

“We are in the process of anticipating remaining in Catawba County as well as a change of venue,” Gaither said. “We are going to be in communication with the other DAs around the state to see if they have facilities that can accommodate the possible change of venue. At this point, it is premature to determine that it will be changed.”

The state will argue that the trial remain in Catawba County, Gaither said.

Other matters discussed

It is still unclear who will be the lead counsel for Baker’s trial, but Gaither did inform the judge that he intends to try Baker’s most serious charges last.

Baker is charged with nine felonies, as well as a host of misdemeanors.

She is also facing federal drug charges for trafficking prescription pain killers.

On Thursday, it was determined that Baker’s second-degree murder and obstruction of justice charges would be consolidated and tried together. Gaither intends to to try those charges last.

Kincaid also discussed evidence for the trial with the attorneys.

Michael Van Buren, who was elected as lead counsel in the run-up to the trial, told Kincaid that the state gave the defense more than 18,000 pages of the case file. Reilly said he has “boxes full” of evidence in the Zahra Baker murder case.