Cornelius Baker, who’s been on death row for 12 years in the murder of a woman in Flagler County in 2007, will have a new sentencing trial in spring. And Tonya Bennett, a woman facing up to 30 years in prison for setting fire to a Family Dollar store in Bunnell last year will plead to a lesser charge, sparing her prison altogether. She will be on probation for 10 years.
The two unrelated developments were the result of hearings before separate circuit judges today in Flagler and Volusia counties.
Baker is the now-35-year-old former Bunnell man who kidnapped, brutalized and murdered Elizabeth Uptagrafft in January 2004, raiding her home in Daytona Beach and kidnapping her to Flagler, where Baker shot her three times and left her to die in the woods at the south end of the county. A jury found him guilty and recommended the death penalty, though not on a unanimous vote: it was 9-3. Then-Circuit Judge Kim Hammond sentenced him to die. Since then, conflicting state Supreme Court court decisions have returned the sentencing phase of the trial to the docket. The Supreme Court in 2016 ruled the state’s death-penalty scheme unconstitutional. The Legislature passed a law requiring unanimous death-penalty recommendations for a valid death sentence, enabling baker to re-argue his sentence. He’d started to, through his court-appointed public defender, only for the Supreme Court, with new appointees, to rule that unanimous verdicts aren’t necessary after all.
That gave the prosecution a window to reinstate the death penalty. Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis motioned to do just that. But Circuit Judge Margaret Hudson, who sits in Volusia but was assigned the Flagler case, denied the motion last March on procedural grounds. So the sentencing trial is moving ahead, pending a few more steps. Hudson held a status hearing today, setting one more for March with a trial in view around then. The trial will entail impaneling a jury of 12. Since it will be an entirely new jury, unfamiliar with the case, the trial, exclusively penalty-phase though it is, will include numerous elements recreating the case for the jury. It is a very long shot for Baker–but a shot nonetheless.
Bennett’s case drew little attention when it began last June 22 in the evening. Bennett, whose address was listed as 811 Hymon Circle in Bunnell, had set fire to the outside of the Family Dollar building at 607 East Moody Boulevard. It wasn’t a significant fire: law enforcement authorities were able to put it out with a fire extinguisher. But because the store was occupied, and the fire had caused $1,400 in damages, the act resulted in a first-degree felony charge of arson, with a maximum potential penalty of 30 years in prison. Bennett, 52, admitted to setting the fire at the time. It’s not clear why she did so. She was arrested and charged and has been at the Flagler County jail since.
Bennett has five previous convictions on violent charges, including battery (1992), aggravated battery with a deadly weapon (2013), domestic violence (2018), battery on an officer or a paramedic (2018), and battery of a person detained in jail (2019). That last felony conviction was the result of Bennett getting upset with her bunk mate over hygiene issues.
She appeared before Circuit Judge Terence Perkins by video conference from the jail this afternoon, with her lawyer, Bill Bookhammer, and the judge zooming in from separate locations. She was scheduled to tender a plea, which in its original version amounted to a reduced charge of second-degree arson, with three years in prison and credit for the 435 days already served at the county jail, which, with early release after serving 85 percent of her sentence, would’ve meant she’d serve a year and a little over four months in prison.
“I don’t want to go to prison,” Bennett jumped in as Bookhammer was outlining to the judge what he thought was the plea agreement. “May I do the probation? That’s what I’ve been asking all this time. I’m sorry that I put out through this, but I want to do the probation like I asked you before.”
She was right: the state had offered five years’ probation.
“But it was to include specialized mental health treatment,” Lewis, who is prosecuting this case as well, said, after making it back in from the Baker case. “We were really trying to get that accomplished, and it was turning out to be very difficult endeavor judge.” The probation offer was still pending, though it was closer to 10 years, according to Bookhammer. He said there was an attempt to enroll her in mental health facilities, but that failed. She could have gone to SMA in Daytona Beach, but she’d have to be placed on a waiting list. There is no longer the sort of jail-diversion program that could have enabled her to wait the month out of jail. “It’s sort of a sort of a rotten situation in that she doesn’t have anybody to be a case manager,” Bookhammer said.
What it was coming down to was this: the defense and the prosecution both wanted to keep her out of prison and both wanted her enrolled in a mental health program. Since the program wasn’t available, she couldn’t be let out of jail just to wait for a program. The result, astoundingly, was a prison term by default.
Bennett couldn’t believe it. She said her classification at the jail had been changed to reflect her good behavior, that her daughter had moved to Daytona to take care of her, where she could stay with her son. She also has family in Palm Coast. “I have family members here, Mr. Bookhammer, and I would like to be released today. I’ve been here 14 months, your honor, and I’ve been doing really good. And I know that I’ve learned a lot here, and how to act and how to treat people. ”
The judge asked Lewis what the offer was. “10 years’ probation,” Lewis said. “I think Mr. Bookhammer was worried about that for you,” he said to Bennett–meaning the length of the probation term. Probation is not an easy burden to meet: probationers are on a tight leash, and are required to abide by a strict schedule of check-ins, they have very limited rights, and infractions can return them to prison. She would also have two to three mental health meetings per week with a counselor and take her mental health medications. Absurdly, SMA would not allow her to begin the process and get on the waiting list while she was in jail. “That was the catch 22 we were running into,” Bookhammer said.
“Yeah, that sure makes a lot of sense,” the judge said.
“I understand he’s worried about that for me,” Bennett said, “but let me worry about me right now, because I could do it for me. I have family members there, this is my own town. I could do a good job here now because I’m not running with the same crew. I’m a changed person. And I thank the jailhouse for that. The 14 months I’ve been here, I’ve seen lots of people come and go here and come back here, and I don’t want to be the one that comes back here.”
The judge agreed to the terms presented by the defense and the prosecution, with deadlines. But he wanted the terms in writing, which meant that the plea agreement had to be redrafted and re-submitted to the judge later this week. Assuming the plea doesn’t change, Bennett will serve 10 years’ probation, with a series of medical and counseling requirements. The actual plea hearing will take place Thursday at 9 a.m.