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On the news beat: What defines justice for Zahra?

February 23, 2011

Zahra Baker.
I’ve probably typed her name hundreds of times in the past five months.
Monday was another one of those days when I typed Zahra’s name over and over again as I learned more about what happened to the freckle-faced cancer survivor. The more I type Zahra’s name, the more I hope to see swift, firm justice delivered in the case.
Hickory Police Chief Tom Adkins called Monday’s second-degree murder indictment of stepmother Elisa Baker a “milestone” for law enforcement officers who worked tirelessly for almost five months to bring justice to Zahra. I have no doubt that finally pinning down charges against Elisa was a bittersweet moment for those officers.
Obviously, they wanted to end the case in early October, with Zahra unharmed and safe at home. That, unfortunately, was impossible. So, the next best scenario was to find those responsible for Zahra’s death and see that they were brought to justice.
I, for one, hope Monday’s milestone in the Zahra Baker case isn’t the last.
Crimes don’t go away once someone is arrested, indicted or charged. Those crimes and their perpetrators linger through the court system, amidst piles of paper, legal jargon and red tape. Sure, Elisa is behind bars at Catawba County jail with a bail of more than $300,000.
But is that really justice?
I’m reminded of Travis Baker’s family, who continues to wait for justice almost two years after John Lee Mitchell Jr. was arrested for Travis’ murder.
Adkins said Monday that police will continue to compile evidence in Zahra’s case “until the first day of trial.” When will that be? Is that some imaginary, idealized date in the future? Or will there be an actual day when Elisa will stand before a jury of her peers and face her charges?
Zahra needs a milestone like that. Zahra needs a milestone where someone is sentenced for her death, where someone will spend whatever is left of life thinking about the harm they caused to a defenseless child who had a bright future.
I understand the state’s need to compile an air-tight case. When Zahra’s case goes before a jury, the prosecution wants the slam-dunk argument needed for a conviction. But what if Elisa never sees a trial?
What if she reaches an agreement with the District Attorney’s Office to include a lesser sentence if she admits guilt? Is that justice?
I think everyone needs to ask those questions in a case like Zahra’s.
A reader who commented on The O-N-E’s website is doing just that, and those questions are all the right ones.
“Are we going to be satisfied that there is a park named after this little girl?,” the reader posted in response to a story about Elisa’s indictment. “Will we feel justified if we name some law to help protect children down the road and the sponsoring politician has a smug smile and names it the ‘Zahra Law’? How can we sleep at night knowing the best that we could do was light a few candles, leave a few teddy bears and promise to do better?”
Yes, a lot of good has come from Zahra’s tragedy. Catawba County Kiwanis Clubs will build a playground where disabled children can play together with their able-bodied peers. People across the nation are demanding reform in Departments of Social Services everywhere. But, as that reader wrote, is it enough to promise to do better?
I, personally, am tired of promises. Promises don’t represent action, and action is what Zahra needs. I commend law enforcement officers, the Catawba County Grand Jury and the District Attorney’s Office for the work they’ve done so far, but I pray it doesn’t stop there.
I want to continue typing Zahra’s name in future news articles. I don’t, however, want those articles to be about delays, continuances, formalities and red tape. I want to write articles, like I did yesterday, about action, sentencing and results.
Don’t let Monday’s milestone be the last in Zahra’s case.

Jordan-Ashley Baker is a reporter for The Observer News Enterprise. Her column appears in the Wednesday edition of The O-N-E.

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