Attorneys for Matthew Baker ask judge to nix death penalty option

Matthew Baker Jr., listens to proceedings during a preliminary hearing in Henry County Magistrate Court in December. (Staff Photo: Chelsea Prince)

McDONOUGH — Attorneys for Matthew Baker have filed their first set of motions in the murder case against him, asking a Henry County judge to find fault with several aspects of the proceedings, including the state’s intent to seek the death penalty.

A total of 114 motions have been filed by Baker’s capital public defenders on his behalf. Several are assertions of Baker’s constitutional rights, some deal with the way he is to be presented in court, and others claim that the Henry County criminal justice system has discriminatory and, in some cases, unconstitutional practices.

Baker, 20, is charged along with co-defendant Jacob Cole Kosky, 23, in the Oct. 27, 2016, murders of four young people at a Jackson area bonfire. Four victims were found shot early that morning in the dining room of a home on Moccasin Gap Road.

Prosecutors have accused Kosky of shooting all four victims either in the head or in the back and have suggested in pre-trial proceedings he planned to do so as early as the day before the bonfire. Baker, according to prior police testimony, allegedly held a gun after Koksy asked him for backup.

Henry County District Attorney Darius Pattillo has announced his intent to seek the death penalty should Baker and Kosky be convicted of murder. In his notice of intent, he listed nine statutory aggravating circumstances as reasons for capital punishment.

It is Pattillo’s first death penalty case as district attorney, and one of the first homicide cases to cross his desk since taking on the role in January.

Defense attorneys Kimberly Staten-Hayes, Shayla Galloway and Christina Rudy would like to take the death sentence off the table for Baker, arguing that it is unconstitutional because it is a violation of Baker’s right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, equal protection under the law, due process, and it is discriminatory. They claim that because Georgia has no statutory standards for when to seek the death penalty, the process exposes Baker, who is black, to discrimination on the basis of race or status.

“In this case, Matthew Baker intends to establish at an evidentiary hearing that the decision makers in his case have intentionally discriminated against him on the basis of race, and, second, that the decision makers in his case are influenced by racial prejudices that make them more likely to seek and impose the death penalty when the defendant is black rather than when he is white,” his attorneys wrote in one motion.

Baker’s case is unique in that it will be the first death penalty case to be prosecuted by an African-American Henry County district attorney. His attorneys, however, also take issue with the way that district attorneys and Superior Court judges are elected in the state of Georgia because they are often not representative of the communities they serve.

They claim that there is concrete evidence that racial discrimination plagues the application of the death penalty throughout the state. In one example, they write that although African Americans make up 27 percent of the state’s population (current census data shows that they are 32 percent), 43 percent of Georgia’s current death row population is black.

Since the state’s reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976, more than 70 percent of the people executed have been nonwhite, Baker’s attorneys argue.

Nationally, although the majority of people executed since 1976 have been white, a disproportionate number have been black, according to data complied by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalistic enterprise focused on criminal justice. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and 34 percent of those executed in capital cases.

“Any respectable defense attorney with a client who the state is seeking to execute is going to raise that objection, or any other type of objections,” said Donald E. Wilkes Jr., professor of law emeritus at the University of Georgia School of Law. Wilkes taught for 40 years specializing in criminal justice-related law.

“When you are in a death penalty case and you are a defense attorney, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by raising objections to the charges,” Wilkes said.

It is common for defense attorneys to raise any objection possible and raise it early, because early objections are important to an appeals process. Though some claims may not be “winners,” Wilkes said, it is better for a defense attorney in a capital punishment case to present it and let a judge decide, rather than to miss out on an opportunity for their client.

“There are many cases where people have been executed because there was a valid claim, the attorney did not raise it, and by the time it was raised it’s too late,” Wilkes said.

Since 1976, 70 people have been executed in Georgia. Last year, nine people were executed, more than any other state.

Though the death penalty has been sought several times in Henry County, it has not been carried out once in the 41 years since Georgia’s current death penalty statute has been in place, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

One person, Mustafa Askia Raheem, convicted in Henry County was sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of a Henry County woman and her son. He has been on death row since February 2001.

There is no record of the number of times a Henry County top prosecutor has sought a death sentence under the current statute. Baker’s attorneys have asked a judge to order that information for the last 30 years be compiled, either by the District Attorney’s Office or the Superior Court Clerk, along with a list of all the homicide cases prosecuted in Henry County from 1987 to 2017.

No response from the state has been filed with Superior Court.

The case has been assigned to Judge Arch McGarity, and it is expected McGarity will consider both defense and any state motions at a later hearing. As the anniversary of the shootings nears, no such hearing has been scheduled.

Reporter

Public safety reporter Chelsea Prince joined the Henry Herald and Clayton News Daily in 2016. She is a graduate of Emory University.

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