The prosecutor who handled one of North Carolina’s most notorious crimes Tuesday made new allegations against the defense attorney in the case – a man now challenging him for public office.
District Attorney Jay Gaither alleged that attorney Scott Reilly hurt the prosecution’s case by “mishandling” evidence in the killing and dismemberment of 10-year-old Zahra Baker.
Reilly, who filed for district attorney Tuesday, denied the charge. He acknowledged finding a hacksaw in a Caldwell County storm drain but said he had tried unsuccessfully to contact Gaither immediately.
Three years ago Reilly, a Conover attorney, defended Elisa Baker, who’s now serving an 18 1/2-year sentence for the slaying of her stepdaughter.
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Zahra’s disappearance in October 2010 riveted attention as volunteers and law enforcement officials searched for the missing girl and later for her body. Her remains were eventually found that December.
The case captured attention across the country and even around the world. It was featured on network and cable television.
In a September 2011 plea agreement, Elisa Baker pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. She’s now in a state prison in Raleigh. She faces a separate sentence on unrelated federal charges.
Gaither and Reilly are running in a GOP primary that also includes Morganton attorney David Learner. Reilly, also a former prosecutor, lost to Gaither in a 2002 primary.
The contest has resurrected Zahra’s case.
Learner, a former prosecutor, suggested that could hurt both his rivals.
“People are very, very angry about the Zahra Baker plea bargain, and rightfully so,” Learner said Tuesday. “A lot of people don’t realize that Scott Reilly defended Zahra’s killer.”
Gaither, of Hickory, said efforts of prosecutors and law enforcement “were hampered by Scott Reilly’s mishandling of evidence.”
“He removed evidence from the ground, and he visited Zahra Baker’s remains prior to Elisa Baker leading law enforcement to her,” Gaither said.
Asked if that impacted the case against Elisa Baker, Gaither said it did. He declined to elaborate.
Reilly called the suggestion “ludicrous.”
“It’s a desperate attempt to try to smear me,” he said.
Reilly acknowledged finding the hacksaw.
“We were trying to corroborate our client’s story,” he said, “and in doing so I did discover some evidence … The evidence was in danger of being destroyed if we didn’t collect it immediately.”
Reilly said the saw was in a drain near a river. With a storm approaching, he feared it would be washed away. He said a private detective with him at the time took the saw, handling it in a manner “consistent with rules of evidence collection.”
Reilly defends actions
Reilly said they tried to contact Gaither that night but couldn’t reach him, and they turned the saw over to law enforcement two days later. Gaither said Reilly should have given it to police immediately.
“There was no legitimate reason for them to continue to hold on to that evidence,” Gaither said.
Reilly said professional rules allowed him to take possession of the evidence.
“I adamantly refute that anything was ... mishandled,” said Reilly, who suggested the allegations are a distraction from the campaign.
“The last thing I want to get into is (to) re-litigate the Baker case,” he said “What I want to do is run my campaign on how I can run a more efficient, fair and effective DA’s office …
“I just think the other two (candidates) are trying to make it an issue because they know the citizens were understandably upset about that case.”
Many Hickory-area residents were disappointed at prosecutors and at the plea deal. One woman called it “a slap on the wrist.”
Gaither said he’s not worried.
“If it becomes an issue in the campaign, I believe that most people in Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties believe that most people involved did the best they could with the information they were given.”