Certain things about Cornelius Baker are beyond dispute, even his: on January 7, 2007, when he was 20, he kidnapped Elizabeth Uptagrafft during a home invasion in Daytona Beach. He terrorized her family, stole her jewelry, stole her car, and used her bank card at Winn Dixie and SunTrust in Palm Coast to steal $500. He drove to Flgler in her car (with his girlfriend in tow), ordered Uptagrafft out of the car on isolated Black Point Road in Bunnell, shot her in the head, then twice more after she fell and left her dead.
If he was going to get in trouble, he told his police interviewer just hours later, he was going to go all the way. Baker himself led police back to the body.
The man nick-named “Football Head” when he was younger–the nickname Bunnell Police officer Randy Burke used when he called out to him as he was seeking him out with Matt Doughney, who was on his first day in the Criminal Investigative Division in Daytona Beach, and who’s now Flagler Beach’s police chief–was indicted on a first-degree murder charge, prosecuted by then-Assistant State Attorney, now Circuit Judge, Matthew Foxman, and found guilty of murder and other charges on Aug. 25, 2008. The verdict was unanimous.
Three days later the same jury recommended that Baker be killed. The recommendation verdict was 9-3. The following March 4, then-Circuit Judge Kim Hammond, finding Baker’s remorse “not particularly compelling,” sentenced him to die.
Appeals failed. Baker, now 34, has been on death row since. But his case took a new turn when in 2016 the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s system of allowing death recommendations by non-unanimous juries was unconstitutional. Florida was one of a handful of states that still allowed non-unanimous verdicts, though a unanimous verdict is required for other felony convictions. That sent Baker’s case back to the argument circuit. His lawyers are not disputing his conviction. But they’re seeking a new penalty-phase trial (with a new jury).
It worked for William Gregory. It worked for David Snelgrove. Gregory is the Flagler Beach man who shot his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend as they slept in August 2007–seven months after Baker’s murder of Uptagrafft. He was sentenced to die, though by a 7-5 jury recommendation, then had his sentence commuted to life in prison in 2017. Snelgrove had murdered an elderly couple in their Palm Coast home in 2000, and was twice sentenced to die by Hammond, but both times following non-unanimous verdicts. In January, when a third jury failed to reach unanimity for death, his sentence was commuted to life.
Less than two weeks later, the Florida Supreme Court, now reconstituted as one of the most conservative federal or state high courts in the nation, invalidated its own 2016 ruling. Unanimous recommendations aren’t necessary for death sentences after all, the court ruled in State v. Poole.
It looked as if Baker’s chance for a new penalty-phase trial had vanished again, all because of scheduling. He is represented by the same public defenders who represented Snelgrove. They can only do so much. Snelgrove was up first. At least as a matter of scheduling, he got lucky. His latest verdict made it in on time. Ashley Moody, the state’s attorney general, attempted to have his and other commuted sentences reversed again in light of the Supreme Court’s January decision. But the court last week ruled against any such reversals. It was a victory of sorts for defense attorneys and their clients, but the victory also underscored the luridness of the series of rulings: some inmates would survive thanks to a scheduling quirk, while others might yet be strapped to the lethal injection slab and killed despite non-unanimous verdicts.
Might, because many of those cases are now in a new twilight zone of their own thanks to the conflicting court cases, among them Baker’s.
Baker’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis. He’s being defended by public defender Junior Barrett. Circuit Judge Margaret Hudson is trying the case. They all agreed in January to put the case on hold while they all tried to figure out how to proceed. They were hoping for clarity rom the higher court. If the court had ruled in favor of Moody’s motion last week, it would have been clear enough: not only could Snelgrove’s and Gregory’s cases have been brought back to court and their death sentences potentially reinstated. But Baker’s plea for a new penalty-phase trial would have likely been rendered moot and dismissed.
But the court’s decision last week settled another matter: Once a re-sentencing order has been issued, it cannot be reversed, the court ruled. Since the Supreme Court in 2017 ordered a new penalty-phase trial for Baker, that phase must proceed.
However seemingly humane, the ruling fosters new absurdities. The result may not be different than Baker’s previous sentencing under a 9-3 recommendation for death. Since a unanimous recommendation is not required, Baker may simply be put through the motions of an other sentencing trial–and with him, the family and friends of the victim–on the hopes that his jury would recommend against death by a majority vote. Flagler and its juries have grown more conservative since 2007, not less. (Snelgrove survived a death recommendation by just two votes, after getting as many as five in a previous trial.) That leaves the likelihood that Baker would be re-sentenced to the same final punishment–without the benefit of the standard that applied in Snelgrove’s re-sentencing. It’s either a hail Mary or an absurdist play in the form of a trial.
In March, Lewis all but made those points as he filed a motion to outright reinstate the death penalty for Baker. “Because the jury convicted [Baker] of home invasion robbery and kidnapping, an aggravating factor was unanimously found by the jury to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Lewis’s motion argues, in line with the Supreme Court’s decision in January (which found that if a jury finds one aggravating factor with unanimity, then the death penalty recommendation stands).
Lewis often relies on his rhetorical and emotional skills to win his cases, as he overwhelmingly does. In his March pleading, those skills were on display in a footnote, as they could not be in the body of the pleading: “In addition to the incalculable emotional toll on victims’ family members,” he wrote, “it would be an enormous waste of both the bench and bars’ [sic.] time , as well as citizens’ time who are called for jury duty to require new penalty phases based on a decision that the Florida Supreme Court in State v. Poole acknowledged was incorrectly decided on a myriad of levels.” Lewis finished, or flourished: “In light of the number and magnitude of the legal errors in Hurst v. State, this court should not require the prosecutors and citizens of Florida to have to go through the empty formality and enormous waste of resources of a new penalty phase based on a decision that is no longer the law in Florida.”
In other words, Baker should not be so lucky as to benefit from the standard that removed Snelgrove and Gregory from death row.
Junior Barrett’s argument for the defense was more prosaic, if also more legally weighty. He asks that as long as an order is in place for a new penalty-phase trial, it should be respected: In requesting that Mr. Baker’s sentence be reimposed, the state asks that this Honorable Court ignore a final order and mandate issued by the Florida Supreme Court,” Barrett wrote. “There is simply no rule or statutory authority for a trial court to consider the merits of a final order of the Florida Supreme Court granting postconviction relief some two years plus after its rendition or to ignore said final order.” In other words, he added, the judge “would be without the legal power to revoke its own order granting resentencing had that order been the trigger for Mr. Baker’s resentencing.” He calls it “inconceivable” that the court would do so.
A status hearing is scheduled on Jan. 4 before Hudson.