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DA: Death penalty still on the table in Zahra case

By Franco Ordoñez
fordonez@charlotteobserver.com

The prosecutor involved in the Zahra Baker case has indicated that the death penalty and first-degree murder charges are not off the table as possible punishments if the Hickory girl is found to have been murdered.

"We're under no obligation not to pursue capital murder charges or first-degree murder charges against any individual if there is sufficient and credible evidence to prove that Zahra Baker was murdered by that individual," District Attorney James Gaither Jr. told the Observer on Saturday.

The district attorney of Catawba County declined to comment on the existence or nonexistence of an agreement between the state and Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker.

Several television stations have reported that Gaither signed an agreement with Baker that would allow her to avoid the death penalty and first-degree murder charges if she cooperated in the investigation into Zahra's disappearance and death.

But a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Observer the agreement was contingent on, among other things, Baker being truthful in her assistance of law enforcement in the investigation.

Zahra was reported missing Oct. 9. The search for the freckled girl who lost part of her leg to bone cancer drew worldwide attention.

Media outlets from as far away as Australia, where Zahra was born, traveled to Hickory to report on the search that spanned Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties.

Some of her remains were found a month later in two separate rural locations in Caldwell County.

No one has been charged in connection with her death. Both Elisa Baker and Zahra's father, Adam Baker, have denied any wrongdoing in the case.

Elisa Baker's attorney, Lisa Dubs, couldn't be reached Saturday. She was removed from the case as a state-appointed attorney, but she told the Hickory Daily Record that she would continue to represent Baker.

Elisa Baker is in jail, charged with obstruction of justice, after police say she admitted to writing a phony ransom note to mislead investigators looking into Zahra's disappearance.

A first-degree murder conviction can be punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. Second-degree murder is punishable by sentences ranging from seven years to more than 32 years in prison depending on the defendant's criminal record and the circumstances surrounding the killing.

Court documents unsealed last week revealed that Baker provided a substantial amount of assistance to investigators in their search for evidence. She rode with police and directed them to locations where evidence had been discarded. Through Dubs, Baker told an investigator that latex gloves were used while Zahra's body was dismembered.

Dubs also said investigators might find remains in the bathtub drain at the Bakers' Hickory home. Baker also said she and her husband, Adam Baker, dumped a mattress that belonged to Zahra at a trash dump in Granite Falls.

Elisa Baker took a polygraph test. When asked two questions - "Did you hurt Zahra?" and "Do you know the person who wrote that ransom note?" - she showed deception on each, according to the documents. Staff writer Gary L. Wright contributed.

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