Plea deal possible in Zahra Baker case

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are in negotiations that could put an end to the nearly yearlong murder case of 10-year-old Zahra Baker of Hickory.

Defense Attorney Scott Reilly told the Observer on Monday night that he is in discussions with District Attorney Jay Gaither on resolving the second-degree murder charges against Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, possibly as early as Wednesday.

"We're having productive discussions and we're working toward the goal of resolving the cases," he said.

On Monday, Elisa Baker returned to Catawba County court for a change of venue hearing. But Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid postponed it until Wednesday to allow the attorneys to continue negotiations.

Reilly would not discuss specifics of any plea deal, but said he wants to advise his client on her best options based on the prosecution's case. If convicted of second-degree murder, Baker could face as few as eight years - or as many as 30 - in prison.

The story of Zahra Baker, the young girl with the beautiful smile who survived cancer and lived with a hearing impairment, drew worldwide attention. In Australia, where she was born, news media documented every aspect of the case. In Hickory, residents held multiple vigils and built a memorial site in her honor.

In February, Elisa Baker was charged with second-degree murder after an autopsy concluded Zahra had died from "undetermined homicidal violence."

The autopsy ruled out the possibility of a natural death, as Elisa Baker had claimed. She accused her husband, Adam Baker, of dismembering his daughter's body after she had discovered Zahra dead from an illness.

The indictment stated that Baker had "a history and pattern of physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the victim."

The indictment charged that Elisa Baker had "secreted" Zahra from her family before the killing to delay detection of the crime. She also "desecrated (Zahra's) body to hinder detection, investigation and prosecution of the offense."

However, questions remained about whether prosecutors could convict Baker when the medical examiner could not give a clear indication of how Zahra died. The autopsy revealed that much of her body wasn't recovered, including her skull, right arm and most of both legs.

Concerns in Hickory grew in July when a Florida jury found Casey Anthony not guilty of first-degree murder in her daughter's death. In that case, the medical examiner also struggled to find a cause of daughter Caylee's death.

In the Baker case, the death penalty is off the table since prosecutors filed second-degree murder charges. Prosecutors would not have to prove a premeditated killing.

Prosecutors charged Baker with second-degree murder after reportedly entering into an agreement with her not to seek first-degree murder charges in exchange for her assistance in finding Zahra's body.

Baker led investigators across Caldwell County, where the girl's prosthetic leg and other body parts were recovered.

Elisa Baker has a minor criminal record of long-ago convictions for assault and worthless checks.

District Attorney Jay Gaither could not be reached for comment Monday.

Earlier this year, he said he was racking up charges against Elisa Baker to increase his bargaining power and prison time for Baker if she was convicted of murder. He filed more than 23 charges against her.

All but two of the charges are unrelated to Zahra's death. Most are for relatively minor offenses - worthless checks, unsafe tires, driving without a license - that few prosecutors spend time on.

"The prosecution has a plan and we are proceeding on course," he said at that time. Staff Writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed.