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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 county‚Äôs 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 Elisa‚Äôs ‚Äúpeers,‚ÄĚ 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 Zahra‚Äôs death in a court of law.
Nor could Zahra‚Äôs Australian father Adam.
But that‚Äôs 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. We‚Äôve got lots of reasons for close-held opinions. Look at the facts, they‚Äôre all there in the investigative warrants spilled to the media. Lots of roots for conjecture there. We‚Äôve 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, he‚Äôs complicit.
He‚Äôs 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.
There‚Äôs more. While we‚Äôve made judgements for Zahra‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúno evidence of maltreatment or child safety issues.‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄĒ those responsible for protecting Zahra during her life ‚ÄĒ watchers also prepare judgment for Catawba County‚Äôs district attorney Jay Gaither.
As chief prosecutor in the 25th Judicial District, he‚Äôs responsible for delivering justice for victims of crime. Zahra. He‚Äôs 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 case‚ÄĒ again based on evidence before us.
Early on, there was a blunder that put search warrants‚Äô content into the public‚Äôs hands. This week, there was an arraignment ‚ÄĒ then there wasn‚Äôt ‚ÄĒ it was a big misunderstanding. Today, there‚Äôs news of ‚Äúthe deal‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ 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 Elisa‚Äôs attorney at the time, Lisa Dubs, helped ‚Äúput to rest what happened to Zahra.‚ÄĚ
It also helps shape our judgment of Gaither, a judgment colored by the DA‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ judges, the capital defender‚Äôs office, ‚Äúincorrect‚ÄĚ statements from Dubs ‚ÄĒ the watching world builds its case. It still prepares its judgement. And he resents the scrutiny.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been pretty offensive to me to have to deal with this kind of scrutiny,‚ÄĚ 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 Gaither‚Äôs 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 Zahra‚Äôs 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.