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This week, a Catawba County Grand Jury officially delivered news the world has anxiously awaited the past four months. An indictment issued Monday declared that, in the eyes of this countyâ€™s prosecutors and grand jury members, Elisa Baker was involved in the death and dismemberment of a 10-year-old, disabled cancer survivor. Zahra.
The second-degree murder charge marks the start of a painfully slow march through the N.C. justice system. There will be hearings and continuances. Discoveries filed. A change of venue likely. Eventually, between judges and attorneys, possibly even a jury of Elisaâ€™s â€śpeers,â€ť a decision will be reached over whether this woman is guilty of murder.
Amid that legal wrangling, there is also a real chance Elisa could never be ruled responsible for Zahraâ€™s death in a court of law.
Nor could Zahraâ€™s Australian father Adam.
But thatâ€™s only in the justice system.
In the eyes of plenty of people around the planet, the verdict is already in. The court of public opinion has ruled on those responsible for protecting Zahra.
Now it is getting ready to rule again, and while imposing a sentence against the Bakers for our perceptions is difficult, a forthcoming ruling in this realm of judgment will be easier to enforce.
Plenty of us already think Elisa is guilty, guilty in one degree or another. Weâ€™ve got lots of reasons for close-held opinions. Look at the facts, theyâ€™re all there in the investigative warrants spilled to the media. Lots of roots for conjecture there. Weâ€™ve also seen her get lawyer-ed up, make herself a deal and lead investigators to body parts buried around the region.
Yes, the world has foundation for our opinions of Elisa.
Our judgment, too, is on Adam Baker. Somehow, for something, heâ€™s complicit.
Heâ€™s guilty of being a terrible father; guilty of not protecting a child he brought to our state from Australia. Zahra. Charges may never come, but daddy gets some blame, at least from the watching world.
Thereâ€™s more. While weâ€™ve made judgements for Zahraâ€™s immediate caretakers, the burden of blame looms over other shoulders. Activities inside the Baker home prompted concerns and complaints to social services departments in Caldwell and Catawba counties. Yet, social workers found â€śno evidence of maltreatment or child safety issues.â€ť Despite multiple complaints, no action was taken to remove a threatened child from a frightening situation.
Lady justice may be blind, but the opinionated public is not.
As we deliver verdicts on actions of Elisa, Adam and DSS â€” those responsible for protecting Zahra during her life â€” watchers also prepare judgment for Catawba Countyâ€™s district attorney Jay Gaither.
As chief prosecutor in the 25th Judicial District, heâ€™s responsible for delivering justice for victims of crime. Zahra. Heâ€™s supposed to pursue justice for Zahra after her life has ended.
Now, as he prepares a case to take to a jury, the public readies its caseâ€” again based on evidence before us.
Early on, there was a blunder that put search warrantsâ€™ content into the publicâ€™s hands. This week, there was an arraignment â€” then there wasnâ€™t â€” it was a big misunderstanding. Today, thereâ€™s news of â€śthe dealâ€ť â€” a apparent bargain where Elisa revealed key evidence in exchange for a Gaither promise that took first-degree murder off the table. That agreement, according to Elisaâ€™s attorney at the time, Lisa Dubs, helped â€śput to rest what happened to Zahra.â€ť
It also helps shape our judgment of Gaither, a judgment colored by the DAâ€™s overall handling of the case, from the smallest details to the largest steps required by competent prosecution.
Even his rare public comments shape our perception. As he directs attention toward others who deserve blame â€” judges, the capital defenderâ€™s office, â€śincorrectâ€ť statements from Dubs â€” the watching world builds its case. It still prepares its judgement. And he resents the scrutiny.
â€śItâ€™s been pretty offensive to me to have to deal with this kind of scrutiny,â€ť he told the The News-Topic of Lenoir when talking about a decision to pursue second-degree murder charges.
But as a community served by Gaitherâ€™s office, we must scrutinize. As a representative of citizens in a three-county region, the district attorney serves at our pleasure.
As judges capable of delivering a guilty verdict in the court of opinion, it is difficult for us to impose a sentence on Elisa or Adam, or even an underfunded social service system committing critical failures. Our ruling for Gaither, however, can be more stringently enforced. He is the chief law enforcement officer in this district and bears a significant responsibility for holding someone accountable for Zahraâ€™s death.
If we find Gaither guilty of not fulfilling our expectations for his office, we must take action to enforce a penalty that means an end to that service. Otherwise, Zahra might not be the last crime victim who will never know justice.
Michael Willard is the publisher of The Observer News Enterprise.