Cornelius Baker had no idea as he walked into court this morning that the death sentence he’s lived with since 2009 was about to be lifted. That 15 years of court hearings, appeals, possibilities of reprieve and, more recently, a Supreme Court decision that made Baker’s death sentence all but certain, would end in a three-minute hearing before Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano, eliminating the death penalty from Baker’s future and sentencing him to life in prison without parole.
Baker, stunned, turned to his attorney, Junior Barrett, and asked him: why didn’t you tell me? Because, Barrett told him, he didn’t want to raise his hopes only for a twist, a technicality, any possibility of reversal, to dash them again. It was better for Baker to learn of the commutation as a done deal.
“The state has spoken to the next of kin in this case,” Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis, who prosecuted the case, told Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano. (The case was initially prosecuted by Matthew Foxman, now a circuit judge in Volusia County.) “We’ve consulted and made a decision that we were not going to be seeking the death penalty anymore. And we would ask the court, obviously, the only other appropriate penalty would be life in prison. So we ask the court sentenced to sentence him to life in prison today.”
Family members declined to address the court. Zambrano, who had presided over two years’ worth of hearings in the case between 2012 and 2013, when he was Flagler County’s felony circuit judge, imposed sentence, including 807 days’ credit for time served–a moot formality–before thanking all parties. The hearing lasted exactly 180 seconds.
There is particular if unspoken significance in today’s decision: not a single Flagler County case has resulted in the death of a defendant in the electric chair or the lethal injection table since 1973, when the state re-instituted the death penalty after a brief hiatus. The commutation of Baker’s sentence continues that streak. Only one person convicted in Flagler County remains listed on death row in Florida: Louis Gaskin, who murdered Robert and Georgette Sturmfels in December 1989. A jury recommended death by an 8-4 vote.
Baker has been in jail or in prison since 2007. On Jan. 7 that year, when he was 20, he and his 19-year-old girlfriend Patricia Roosa home-invaded the family of Elizabeth Uptagrafft on Michigan Avenue, shot Updegrafft in the head (the bullet grazed her scalp, gashing it), beat and terrorized the family members, stole jewelry, kidnapped Updegrafft, and drove to Flagler County, where, Barrett said, Rossa not only convinced Baker to dump Uptagrafft off, but to kill her. Baker’s grandmother lived in Flagler at the time, and he’d long lived in Bunnell. The murder took place in the woods less than a mile from State Road 100 and Black Point Road in Bunnell.
Baker shot Updegrafft, first in the neck as she was running away, then in the forehead, from 18 inches away. “Elizabeth Updegrafft was subjected to hours of absolute hell,” the court would later write, describing the murder as “shockingly evil.”
The couple was arrested shortly afterward: their car rolled over and crashed. Baker tried to flee on foot, Burke chased after him, calling him “Football Head,” because Burke knew him from previous encounter and that had been Baker’s nickname when he was a child. Burke had been a police officer for seven years. Baker had lived in Bunnell, and had been arrested there by Burke before, for armed robbery of an elderly woman on a walker. Baker was 15 or 16 at th time. He stomped on the woman and got $3 from the robbery.
It was Baker who took cops to the scene where he’d killed Updegrafft. One of the Daytona Beach cops in the search party was Matt Doughney, now the chief of police in Flagler Beach, and then Daytona Police Chief Mike Chitwood, now the Volusia County sheriff. Baker was charged with first degree murder and kidnapping in the killing. Roosa is serving a life sentence at Lowell prison in Ocala.
Baker was tried and found guilty by a jury that then recommended death by a 9-3 vote. At the time Florida was among the rare states that still allowed the recommendation of death not to be unanimous, even though any finding of guilt on a felony verdict had to be. Then-Circuit Judge Kim Hammond sentenced him to die on March 4, 2009. The appeals began. Baker lost them all but one.
In 2017, the Florida Supreme Court, citing a U.S. Supreme Court precedent, granted Baker’s appeal for post-conviction relief, because the jury’s recommendation for death had not bene unanimous. “Therefore, we cannot conclude that the error in baker’s penalty phase was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” the court ruled. “Accordingly, Baker is entitled to a new penalty phase.”
In other words, a new sentencing–not a trial: his conviction would stand. That started a new round of hearings. It appeared for a while that just as the trial court commuted the sentence of Flagler Beach double-murderer William Gregory that year, and that of Palm Coast double-murderer David Snelgrove in 2020, it would do so in the case of Baker.
Then three Supreme Court justices retired and were replaced by far more conservative justices, appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. In 2020, the Florida Supreme Court’s new majority invalidated the very court’s previous finding on unanimous verdicts, ruling that Unanimous recommendations aren’t necessary for death sentences after all. The ruling issued in State v. Poole derailed Baker’s moves toward a new sentence, and it appeared that the death penalty in his case would be re-affirmed.
His defense was out of ammunition. It never expected to get the olive branch from the prosecution. That alone is what saved Baker’s like. Barrett was in trial last week when he got the call from the prosecutor’s office, letting him know that the state would “maybe consider withdrawing” the notice to seek death. “Since it wasn’t confirmed, he asked me not to say anything,” Baker said of Lewis.
“I’ve had a case with them before where they told us if this case comes back, we won’t seek the death penalty,” Barrett said. “And he came back on one of those recent cases and I called him back, saying, okay, so you’re gonna, you know, withdraw the notice. They said no, we’re going forward with the death penalty. So I didn’t want to do that with this case.”
Of the state of the capital punishment law in Florida, Barrett said “it is what it is,” and said, “there’s so many issues with the death penalty, just so much arbitrariness that can come through it. It all depends in which part of the state you, it depends on who the defendant is, on who the victim is, it’s just so many ways that things can go wrong. One of the best things that happened in regards to death penalty is the requirement that it has to be 12.” The Legislature passed a law that makes that a requirement. But it is not retroactive to cases decided on less than that unanimity. That’s why Baker’s case had again become so vulnerable to the re-imposition of death.
Baker reacted with little emotion after the three-minute hearing, complying with the usual requirement that he be fingerprinted, and exchanging a few words with Barrett. He was then ushered out, to be returned to death row at the prison in Starke, at least for now, before he is likely transferred to a different prison.
Barrett described Baker’s family situation in grim terms: when he was a child, a rock thrown by another child as they were playing struck him in the eye, rendering him blind in that eye because his mother didn’t immediately take him to the hospital. By the time she did, it was too late. His mother was a drug addict. One of his sisters burned down the house. His father was imprisoned for raping one of Baker’s sisters. Baker and his siblings were split up by the foster-care system.
His life spared, there was no mention of the life he took 15 years ago, though Updegrafft’s sister had painted a vivid portrait of the woman she called Dean in a victim-impact statement to the court in June 2009, when she spoke not regarding Baker, but Roosa: “It would be impossible for me to talk about the impact losing Dean has had on me without first telling you what she meant to me. She meant everything. Although our personalities were as different as night and day, she was a calm and gentle spirit while I tend to be a bit more outspoken and regimented. Her serenity and calm tempered my high strung nature, while my outspoken resolve drove her to learn how to stand firm and insist on making any situation work for her. She had an awesome reserve of strength and an amazing degree of character under that gentle exterior. So precious-she was a perfect example of a woman who brought herself out of impossible circumstances with only the strength of her character and her abiding faith to guide her. That was the way she lived her life. She never gave up on anything or anyone that was important to her. She made her living as a nurse’s aide taking care of elderly people who needed constant care. Her ‘ladies,’ that’s what she called her patients…” and she did it for $400 a week.
Addressing Roosa, Updegrafft’s sister added: “We sat in here a few months ago and listened to Cornelius Baker’s family testify to his abominable back ground … his lack of role models and the fact that he had to shop at Wal-Mart, and I wonder what your explanation is. It’s very obvious that you have a loving family. You are young and attractive, a woman who is capable of bringing life and energy and good things into this world; so how do you become someone who can be so casual about seeing one die?
“In all the appearances that I have seen you in this court, not one time have I seen you cry,” she continued. “You dabbed your eyes on when you took the stand at the trial-but it was when they played your own phone call home-not at any testimony having to do with your victims. The pictures of my mother’s bruised body elicited not one tear-the pictures or evidence of my sister blood on your clothes nor my sister’s body laying in the woods did not seem to bother you one bit. Not one time have you looked at us–through us maybe but not at us, until you took the stand. Then you wept and wailed, but Patricia, as soon as you were asked a different question, the tears dried up like magic. I have seen your own mother sit in this court room and cry until I thought surely she would die from the pain of knowing for sure what her daughter had done. I have seen her so broken and overcome with her pain and weeping that someone had to help her from the courtroom, yet not one tear from you. Not even for your own mother.”