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Reilly fights for fair trial

May 4, 2011

Photo by David Prewitt, Lenoir News-Topic

The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team guarded a silent Elisa Baker as she was escorted from a Ford Crown Victoria to Caldwell County Superior Court for a brief hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Once inside, a full staff of sheriff’s office deputies lined the courtroom and blocked each of the doorways.
The 42-year-old stepmother of Zahra Baker is facing one count of financial identity fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses. She is accused of using her deceased daughter’s name to obtain electricity while she and husband Adam Baker lived in Hudson.
Assistant District Attorney Eric Bellas said the purpose of Wednesday’s hearing was to formally arraign Baker and set a trial date. However, Scott Reilly, who represents Baker on matters in Caldwell and Catawba counties, argued that his client deserved at least one more administrative hearing before proceeding to trial. He noted that this was the first time Baker, dressed in a pink jumpsuit issued by the Catawba County jail, appeared on these matters since being served with the indictment, and she deserved more time to review approximately 114 pages of discovery before proceeding.
“Why are you treating her any differently than you would someone else?” Reilly asked of Bellas’ desire to proceed so quickly in the matter. “We shouldn’t even be talking about a trial date at this point. The right thing to do is to allow us more time to review the discovery.”
Superior Court Judge Beverly Beal agreed, stating that Reilly’s points were “well-taken.” Beal said he was reluctant to set a trial date, which is why he placed Baker on the schedule for the July 11 administrative session. Beal also noted that Bellas could announce the state’s tentative plans for moving forward in the case.
“Your honor, the state is ready to proceed in this matter and set a trial date of Aug. 1,” Bellas said, reminding Reilly that no plea agreement will be extended in these matters.
Reilly said he planned to review the materials between now and July and prepare any necessary motions. He said he still plans to file a motion for a change of venue — even though these matters are unrelated to the death of the 10-year-old Australian girl — due to the publicity of the case. He contends that Baker will not receive a fair trial if the proceedings remained in Caldwell County, but he said the final decision will be made by the judge.
“It’s all about making sure she has a fair trial, and I don’t think she can get that here,” Reilly said.
Baker is charged with the second-degree murder of Zahra Baker, who was reported missing by her father Oct. 9. Elisa Baker was lodged in the Catawba County jail one day later on an obstruction of justice charge. Officers said she admitted to writing a fake ransom note tied to Zahra’s disappearance. She also was indicted on bigamy charges in Catawba County.
In Caldwell County, Baker is facing several counts of misdemeanor communicating threats from allegedly threatening to hit two woman she believed were talking about her daughter in 2010. She also was charged with writing worthless checks to area retailers on several occasions in May 2010 and not returning rental property.In addition, Baker failed to appear in court on several traffic offenses that date back as far as March 2004.
Elisa Baker is expected back at the Caldwell County Courthouse on June 13 for the misdemeanor charges and during the week of July 11 for financial fraud. Her next court appearance in Catawba County is scheduled for June 27 for the obstruction of justice and second-degree murder charges.

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