HICKORY, N.C.-- Elisa Baker, accused of murdering her 10-year-old stepdaughter Zahra, is asking that her trial be moved from Catawba County because of the publicity the case has generated.
In seeking the change of venue, defense attorney Scott Reilly argued that Elisa Baker can't get a fair and impartial trial in the county.
"The indictment ... involves one of the most highly publicized crimes ever in Catawba County," Reilly wrote in his motion filed Tuesday. "The pretrial publicity in this case has been such that the entire county is 'infected' with prejudice."
The defense attorney suggested in the motion that many citizens in Catawba County believe Elisa Baker is guilty of murder.
Zahra Baker's body was dismembered last fall and scattered at different locations. Her smiling face, broadcast in photos, captured hearts around the world.
Elisa Baker, 42, has been charged with second-degree murder. She has denied any wrongdoing and has accused her husband, Adam Baker, of dismembering his daughter's body. She has acknowledged that she and her husband disposed of the body parts.
The N.C. Medical Examiner's Office concluded that Zahra died as a result of "undetermined homicidal violence." The autopsy revealed that much of her body had not been recovered, including her skull, right arm and most of both legs.
Adam Baker has not been charged in connection with Zahra's death. On Tuesday, he appeared in Catawba County Superior Court and received a continuance on charges unrelated to Zahra's death: identity theft and obtaining property under false pretenses. While those charges are pending, he can't leave the country.
In the change of venue motion, Reilly called the publicity surrounding Zahra's death and his client's murder charge "excessive," "highly prejudicial" and "overwhelming."
Holding the trial in Catawba County, Reilly said, is "inherently improper" because of the "adverse publicity" and because "the impact of the death of Zahra Baker upon this community has been so profound." He asked that the court transfer the venue of Elisa Baker's case to "a demographically similar county."
Reilly urged the court to grant his motion for a change of venue because "it is reasonably likely that prospective jurors would base their decision in the case upon pretrial information rather than the evidence presented at trial and would be unable to remove from their minds any preconceived impressions they might have formed."
Reilly said the Charlotte Observer has published more than 145 articles on the case. A Google search of the name Elisa Baker, he noted, reveals about 9,540,000 results.
The Hickory Daily Record, the defense attorney said, has allowed citizens to voice their opinions online about the case.
"These comments reveal a deep prejudice against the defendant, and a firm conviction of her guilt," Reilly wrote. "Editorials in the Hickory Daily Record state that Elisa Baker is reviled by many area residents. Opinions expressed reflect that the community believes Elisa Baker deserves the same treatment and fate as Zahra."
The story about Zahra Baker's death has also gotten national television attention. "The Nancy Grace Show," Reilly said, has featured the case numerous times.
"On the show, Elisa Baker has been described as a 'real life evil stepmother,' " Reilly wrote. "Nancy Grace has wondered aloud on her show, 'What hell that stepmother put that little girl through, only God in heaven knows.' "
"Nancy Grace has expressed disappointment that Elisa Baker was not charged with first-degree murder or was not eligible for the death penalty."