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Thursday, January 21, 2010                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor Convicted of Killing Wife

WACO, Texas — After convicting a former Texas minister of killing his wife, jurors on Thursday were to hear new evidence — possibly about sexual advances toward other women — as the punishment phase began.

Matt Baker, 38, faces up to life in prison for drugging and suffocating his wife, Kari, then faking her suicide note in 2006. Jurors deliberated more than seven hours before finding him guilty late Wednesday.

Prosecutors notified defense attorneys before the trial began that they planned to present evidence that Baker made sexual advances toward at least a dozen women, including some underage girls, over the past 18 years. Testimony about the allegations could come during the sentencing hearing, as they were mentioned during trial only in a vague comment by Baker's ex-mistress.

The case almost never went to trial. Kari Baker's death was originally ruled a suicide, but authorities reopened the case several months later after her parents shared evidence obtained for their wrongful death lawsuit against Baker.

"We did it," a sobbing Linda Dulin, Kari's mother, said late Wednesday as she left the courtroom and embraced relatives and friends.

Baker did not testify during the seven-day trial and showed no emotion when the verdict was read. After the judge revoked his bond, Baker shook his attorney's hand and said "thank you" before a sheriff's deputy took him into custody.

A gag order on attorneys was to remain in effect until after sentencing.

Jurors were instructed that to find Baker guilty, they had to agree on two things: that Baker drugged his wife and that he suffocated her with a pillow.

Earlier Wednesday, jurors asked whether they could find Baker guilty without agreeing he smothered her. State District Judge Ralph Strother told them in a note to follow the original instructions, but he did not repeat the wording.

Jurors also found themselves at odds over the testimony of Vanessa Bulls, Baker's former mistress.

They sent the judge a note saying there were disagreements about her testimony regarding "what went on" between her and Baker at his daughter's birthday slumber party two weeks after his wife's death, and what she told investigators last year.

Bulls had testified that during the party, she stayed up all night talking to the girls and did not have sex with Baker. Bulls also testified that she told investigators last year that she and Baker had sex that night. Jurors requested and were given part of the trial transcript.

During closing arguments, Susan Shafer said Baker had told a "web of lies" since his wife's death in their home in Hewitt, a Waco suburb.

She said Kari's upbeat e-mails about a new job just before her death contradicted Baker's story that she killed herself because she was depressed over their middle daughter's 1999 cancer death.

Bulls, who was granted immunity, testified that Baker told her he slipped his wife the prescription sleep aid Ambien, handcuffed her to the bed under the guise of spicing up their marriage, and smothered her with a pillow after she fell asleep. Baker then typed a suicide note and rubbed his wife's lifeless hand over it in case authorities tested for fingerprints, Bulls testified.

The medical examiner overseeing the autopsy testified that signs of smothering were hard to detect and that he did not see any trauma to Kari's body. But another medical examiner who reviewed the autopsy results said he saw an abrasion on Kari's nose consistent with being smothered.

Shafer also urged jurors to note Baker's contradictory statements in his civil lawsuit deposition and in television interviews.

"She was in the way of the life that he had envisioned for himself, and he was a Baptist preacher and he couldn't divorce; he'd lose his job, and he'd have trouble getting another one," Shafer told jurors.

Defense attorney Guy James Gray said Baker was on trial for murder only because he had lied about having an affair.

Gray said an autopsy report listed the cause of death as undetermined, and the partial palm print on the suicide note could have been Kari's because an expert ruled out Baker and investigators who may have touched it.

Kari Baker's fingerprints and palm prints could not be obtained. Her body was exhumed for the autopsy three months after her death amid suspicions she did not kill herself.

Defense attorney Harold Danford said many prosecution witnesses were brought in "to make you mad at Matt" and urged jurors not to vote with their emotions.

Gray also said Bulls was not credible and "may be pathological" because she repeatedly lied to police and others during the investigation.

Prosecutor Crawford Long said Bulls eventually told the truth about her affair and knowing how Kari died, even though "everything she said makes her look worse and worse, and that's why you know it's true."


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