DA questions choice of defender in Zahra Baker case

DA questions choice of defender in Zahra Baker case

DA questions choice of defender in Zahra Baker case


by Cleve R. Wootson Jr. / Charlotte Observer

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. / Charlotte Observer

Posted on November 17, 2010 at 12:57 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 17 at 4:36 PM

The prosecutor in the Zahra Baker case will meet with the N.C. Attorney General's office today to determine if a defense attorney for Elisa Baker was inappropriately appointed at taxpayer expense.

Elisa Baker is in Catawba County jail, charged with felony obstruction of justice in a case that has garnered international attention. Hickory police say she confessed to writing a phony ransom note after her 10-year-old stepdaughter, Zahra, was reported missing Oct. 9. Police later ruled the case a homicide and say Baker is a person of interest.

On Oct. 18, Bob Hurley, the N.C. Capital Defender, provisionally appointed Lisa Dubs of Hickory to represent Elisa Baker.

Dubs specializes in murder cases in which the state is seeking the death penalty, according to her website. In 2006 and 2007, Dubs represented Lisa Greene, a Cabarrus County woman sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after she was convicted of setting a fire that killed two of her children.

The capital defender's office appoints attorneys for indigent defendants accused of first-degree murder. The attorneys are often more experienced and expensive than normal public defenders, and the state pays the cost.

The dispute over Dubs' appointment is only the latest twist in the disappearance and death of Zahra Baker. The search across three counties started with a bizarre 911 call in which Adam Baker, Zahra's father, claimed fires had been set in his backyard and someone had left a ransom note. Later, Elisa Baker led investigators to several locations in Caldwell County where parts of Zahra's dismembered body were found.

But no one has been charged with murder.

It's unclear how much Dubs has worked on Elisa Baker's behalf in the past month, and the Capital Defender's Office says she hasn't submitted a bill. Dubs couldn't be reached Tuesday.

When asked about her costs, Hurley said: "The expense incurred by provisional counsel is a small price to pay for preservation of someone's constitutional rights."

Elisa Baker also has a public defender, Scott Reilly, who was appointed shortly after she was charged with obstruction of justice. Both attorneys' names are on a motion filed Monday asking a judge to decrease Elisa Baker's bond, and both have met with her in jail.

But District Attorney Jay Gaither, who represents Catawba County, says N.C. law only grants the capital defender's office the authority to appoint a provisional attorney like Dubs if a person has been charged with first-degree murder.

Gaither said Tuesday that a murder charge "is the threshold for the appointment of legal counsel on a provisional basis in a capital cases. My main argument is that the rules have to be followed.

"They appear fairly objective ... and if you read them, it's not very hard to understand what's required."

Hurley, the capital defender, says his reading of the statute allowed him to appoint Dubs.

"At some point, the lead detective announced that this has been turned into a homicide investigation and it was clear that Elisa was a prime suspect," Hurley said. "I didn't want her to be without counsel."

The Indigent Defense Services Act of 2001 allows the capital defender to appoint a lawyer on a provisional basis "upon learning that a defendant has been charged with a capital offense."

It's unclear what will happen after Gaither meets with the attorney general's office.

He said he could request a hearing with a judge to have Dubs removed, or the capital defender's office could nullify her appointment.

Still, Dubs could work for free or work out an arrangement with Elisa Baker.

Zahra moved from Australia to Hickory with her father, Adam, after he married Elisa in 2009. The couple met on the Internet.