A judge agreed Monday to move the trial of Elisa Baker out of Catawba County because of excessive publicity over the death of her 10-year-old stepdaughter, Zahra.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid granted the change of venue after hearing from Baker's defense attorney, Scott Reilly, who argued that it would be impossible for her to get a fair trial from Catawba County jurors.
"You would have to live under a rock in Catawba County not to have been exposed to all of the rumors, the false reports, the hearsay evidence, the anger people have concerning this case," Reilly said. "The anger people have against Elisa Baker because of the highly prejudicial nature of the coverage."
Kincaid said he would rule on where the trial will be held at Baker's next hearing, on Sept. 12. He mentioned several communities with adequate court facilities, including Haywood and Buncombe counties near Asheville.
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Elisa Baker, 43, is charged with second-degree murder and obstruction of justice. She and her husband, Adam Baker, reported Zahra missing on Oct. 9, setting off a massive search for the little girl.
The plight of the young cancer survivor who lost a leg and lived with a hearing impairment gained attention worldwide. Newspapers and television stations from Hickory to Australia, where Zahra was born, covered her story extensively. Her body was later found dismembered and discarded throughout Caldwell County.
Elisa Baker has been held in the Catawba County Jail since October, when she was charged with writing a phony ransom note to make it appear Zahra had been kidnapped.
Baker did not speak during Monday's hearing, but did smile several times while talking with her attorney after the judge ruled in her favor.
In anticipation of the hearing, Kincaid also asked the attorneys if they had discussed any potential plea bargains. Both Catawba County District Attorney James Gaither Jr. and Reilly acknowledged having conversations, but said no agreement had been reached.
"Right now there is nothing on the table," Gaither told the judge.
CNN's Nancy Grace has described Baker as a "real-life evil stepmother," Reilly said in court papers. A Google search of the name Elisa Baker, he noted, reveals about 9,540,000 results.
In making his decision to move the trial, Judge Kincaid acknowledged that much of the local debate is not on whether Baker is innocent, but on why she was charged with second-degree murder and not first-degree murder.
Second-degree murder is punishable by prison time ranging from about eight years to more than 30 years, depending on the killer's criminal record. Elisa Baker has a minor record of long-ago convictions for assault and worthless checks.
Kincaid said another option is bringing jurors from another county in North Carolina to hear the case in Catawba County.
Reilly said he hoped the case would be tried as far away from Catawba County as possible. He suggested the coast and mentioned Wilmington as one possibility.
Gaither said he didn't oppose the venue change, but said he felt a fair and impartial jury could be found in Catawba County.
"I trust the jury system, and I trust the system wherever we go," he said.
Staff Writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed.