Appeal denied in homicide

December 27, 2012
Melissa Spudich Baker, pictured holding her son, Brett

WAYNESBURG – A sentencing appeal by convicted murderer Scott Baker has been denied by Greene County Judge William Nalitz.

Baker, 40, was sentenced in March to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of his estranged wife, Melissa Ann Spudich Baker in her Crucible home Nov. 20, 2009. In April, Baker filed an appeal with the court stating multiple grounds to overturn his sentence and/or to be granted a mistrial.

Baker contended there was no evidence of an agreement or plan to commit the crime of homicide or murder and no conspiracy to commit them. Baker’s 12-year-old son testified that his father told him he planned “to make Melissa disappear.” The boy said his father told him this a week before the murder took place. Although Baker contended his son had lied about this fact and others regarding the destruction of evidence at the bequest of the boy’s mother, Nalitz said it was up to a jury to determine the credibility of the testimony presented. Nalitz also noted there was no evidence presented at trial that Sarah Smith, the boy’s mother, had told her son to say his father had killed Melissa or that she had requested his son’s assistance in covering up the murder. “Instead, she told him to tell the police the truth,” Nalitz said. “To be sure, he gave two different versions of the events on Nov. 20, 2009, but it was up to the jury to determine the truth, and obviously they believed the second version.”

Baker claimed his son’s testimony was at times “inconsistent” and “unreliable.” Nalitz responded by noting the time that had elapsed from the date of the murder to the testimony given by the boy in court. “It must be recalled that the trial took place over two years after the victim’s death. Perfect recall, by anyone, let alone a 12-year-old boy, is unlikely,” Nalitz said. Nalitz further responded to Baker’s assertion that he did not intimidate or influence his son to help him cover up what he had done. Nalitz said it was reasonable for a jury to assume that a child would comply to a request by his father, especially one who was as imposing as Baker. Nalitz said such a request to a 12-year-old would be equivalent to a command.

Responding to Baker’s assertion that showing the jury color photographs of Melissa was prejudicial, Nalitz said he agreed the nature of the photographs was graphic and disturbing, but it was necessary to show them in order to quantify the testimony of Dr. Cyril Wecht, who performed the autopsy. Wecht said a type of bruising in the photos was indicative of someone being manually strangled, Nalitz said. “We live in a world of color. To introduce only black and white photographs would inject a tone of artificiality,” Nalitz said. “To exclude the photographs would be to hamper the Commonwealth’s attempt to prove one of the essential issues of this trial, the intent of the actor.”

Regarding a pistol owned by Melissa that was found on the floor near her body, Baker raised the issue that an officer on the scene picked the gun up, removed the bullets and placed it on a nearby table, therefore tampering with evidence. Nalitz said the gun had nothing to do with the death of Melissa and there was no evidence that it had been fired on the day she was murdered. Nalitz said the officer moving the gun therefore could not have confused the jury or deprived Baker of a fair trial.

Baker claimed his consumption of alcohol was not included in the jury instruction regarding degrees of homicide. Nalitz said there was no testimony presented that Baker’s thought processes or motor skills were in any way affected by his alcohol consumption. He also made the point that it was customary for Baker to consume a fifth of alcohol each day and on the evening prior to the murder, Baker had done so between the hours of 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. the morning of the murder. The murder was estimated to have occurred between 9 to 9:30 a.m., approximately seven hours later. Nalitz further noted the defense did not present any evidence that because of his alcohol consumption or alleged post traumatic stress disorder, Baker was incapable of forming a specific intent to kill.

Nalitz countered Bakers arguments on several other details regarding fingerprint testimony and the validity of cellphone records and photos of text messages.

One of the most damning pieces of evidence to link Baker to Melissa on the night of the murder was a photograph taken in the early morning hours of the murder. The photo, taken by Melissa Baker’s friend while they were having breakfast at a restaurant, depicted an opal “mother” necklace worn by Melissa. That necklace was found several months later in the ductwork of Baker’s former family home in Clarksville where only he, his mother and his sister had access.

Baker’s mother, Carla Baker, was called to the stand in the trial and asked if she believed her grandson lied when he said his father had discussed his intent to “make Melissa disappear.” Baker raised this as another of his grounds for appeal. He said this line of questioning had cast his mother in a falsely hostile light. However, Nalitz said the conversation took place on a day when Baker, his mother and his son were going shopping and there was a time period of about 10 minutes when she was not in the truck with them. Nalitz said it was then up to the jury to decide the truth of the testimony.

In his final arguments, Baker called into question Nalitz’s usage of the word “intimidation” in his jury instruction and the district attorney’s reference to Baker’s decision to plead guilty to general homicide halfway through his trial. Baker said in both cases he believed a mistrial was appropriate. Nalitz disagreed. He said Baker had taken the stand and confessed to the court before the district attorney made any mention of Baker’s acceptance of guilt. Regarding the definition of “intimidation,” Nalitz said it was a commonly used word in the English language and he did not believe the jury needed instruction to understand the word.

Baker is serving his sentence in the maximum security Albion State Correctional Institution in Erie County.

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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