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Shared mystery of Zahra Baker, Caylee Anthony

Details of the young girls' deaths appear similar, but 'every case is unique.'

By Franco Ordoñez
fordonez@charlotteobserver.com

The comparisons were expected.

Two young defenseless girls: Caylee Anthony, 2, of Orlando, Fla., and Zahra Baker, 10, of Hickory.

Each missing for an extended period, their mothers - or stepmother in Zahra's case - told similar stories. They said their daughters were kidnapped, then backtracked when the bodies were found.

Caylee drowned, said her mother, Casey Anthony. She said her father helped hide the body.

Zahra died of an illness, said her stepmother Elisa Baker. She said her husband hid the body.

In each case, the medical examiner struggled to find a cause.

On Tuesday, Anthony was found not guilty of first-degree murder in her daughter's death, leading many to ask obvious questions about the Zahra investigation.

"There are a lot of similarities," said Courtney Russell, 24, a criminal justice student from Hickory who has been following the Zahra Baker case. "Caylee didn't get justice. In my heart, I don't know if Zahra will get the justice she deserves."

Soon after the Florida jury reached its verdict, Catawba County District Attorney Jay Gaither started fielding calls about his own case against Elisa Baker. He told the Observer that the Anthony decision shouldn't be taken as a sign of what will happen if the Baker case goes to trial.

"Every case," he said, "is unique."

Gaither has filed second-degree murder charges against Elisa Baker, 42. She has denied any wrongdoing and accuses her husband, Adam Baker, of dismembering his daughter's body after she discovered Zahra dead from an illness.

Gaither said he feels good about the work police and prosecutors have done preparing for a possible trial.

"I realize there is a high level of expectation for me and my office to do a professional job on these cases," he said. "And I do feel confident that we'll process the evidence in a fair manner and we'll cross our t's and dot our i's as we seek justice in the case."

The main similarity in the two cases is the enormous amount of national publicity each has received, said Baker's attorney Scott Reilly.

He said people are forming opinions based on inadmissible evidence that the media find interesting.

"It's so unfair," he said. "The public forms an opinion that these mothers are evil monsters and then they get so upset when a jury hears only admissible evidence. I don't think anyone on that jury thought Casey was entirely innocent, but they were not satisfied with the evidence the state presented. The state didn't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt."

Without clear evidence

One of prosecutors' greatest challenges in Zahra's case will be proving that Elisa Baker killed her stepdaughter without clear evidence of how the 10-year-old girl died. Some of the girl's body had decomposed after being missing for a month. Other parts were never found. The N.C. Medical Examiner's Office ruled Zahra died as a result of "undetermined homicide."

One of the Florida jurors who acquitted Casey Anthony told ABC News said not knowing how Caylee died was a problem in the case.

"There was not enough evidence," said Jennifer Ford, a 32-year-old nursing student. "If you cannot prove what the crime was, you cannot determine what the punishment should be."

It's understandable that television watchers are going to be concerned after watching the Casey Anthony trial, said Paul Friday, a criminal justice professor at UNC Charlotte. He described the court system as a competition where lawyers jockey for advantages using motions to admit or keep out certain evidence. Jurors don't hear the same things everyone else does.

"That is our system, the American system of justice," Friday said. "And when you have that system of justice, and we know it can happen, some people who are not guilty are found guilty and some guilty people are found not guilty."

But Friday also noted that Anthony's prosecutors sought the death penalty, which can weigh on a juror's mind. The death penalty is off the table in the Baker case since prosecutors have filed second-degree murder charges, which means they don't have to prove a premeditated killing.

Another possible difference may be testimony from friends and family about Elisa Baker's character. Some of the Florida jurors pointed out that Anthony's friends testified she was a caring mother who didn't have a motive to hurt her child. It's unclear whether Baker will have the same support. In an October bond hearing, Baker's daughter, Amber Fairchild, described her mother as potentially violent and unstable.

Gaither would not discuss his evidence, but said the decision to charge Baker with second-degree murder was made after careful deliberation.

"We're comfortable with the charges we have and we're ready to move forward," he said.

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