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Zahra leaves lasting impact

The story of Zahra Baker continues to reverberate nearly a year after her killing, inspiring memorials, a change in state law, even a future playground.

The case of the 10-year-old Hickory girl with the freckled face and winning smile has pulled at heartstrings from the beginning. She's been the subject of websites and media accounts across the globe, with news crews traveling to Catawba County from as far as Zahra's native country of Australia.

The widespread interest picked up again last week as Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, was sentenced to 15 to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and other charges in connection to the girl's death.

Many say it isn't unusual for crimes to attract elevated attention.

But when a child is involved and a parent is suspected of harming them, that only ratchets up the interest, said Kenn Gaither, associate dean of the Elon University School of Communication. He said social media also gives people from all over the world even more ways to follow and express their feelings on cases.

"It touches a deep nerve in which people don't understand how others can be treated like this," said Gaither.

Gaither wrote this summer on similar reaction to the case of Florida toddler Caylee Anthony who, like Zahra, was initially reported missing, then later found dead.

Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright said the story of Zahra is one that many in his community won't soon forget.

He said while some have gotten caught up in the gory details of her death - her body was dismembered and scattered - Wright believes most have been inspired by how much the little girl had overcome in her short life. Zahra had fought two bouts of cancer and wore a prosthesis after losing her leg. She also had a hearing impairment.

"She had not let her travails get the better of her," Wright said. "She was going to live life to the fullest, and then adults let her down."

Just before Zahra's case hit the media, Wright said he had been meeting with the Hickory city manager on another issue last fall when he mentioned they might have a spectacular case on their hands.

Wright said the increased attention didn't change the way the police department and other city officials handled the case. But the excessive publicity did convince a judge to grant a request from Elisa Baker's attorney to move her trial out of Catawba County before a plea deal was struck last week.

Change in the law

In the past year, Zahra's case has inspired some in the community to look for ways to help others. It has even prompted a change in state law.

State Rep. Mark Hilton, a Republican from Conover, said he was among many in the community following developments in the case.

As the investigation continued, Hilton said he was approached by the Catawba District Attorney's Office to get legislation introduced to make it a felony to dismember a corpse.

The bill was signed into law this summer. Hilton said while it couldn't lead to additional charges in Zahra's death, it could help future cases.

Hilton said he hopes to work with fellow lawmaker Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain, who is working on a bill inspired by Caylee's case. Some across the country want to make it a crime for a parent or guardian not to immediately notify law enforcement when a child goes missing.

'Boundless park' for all kids

Meanwhile, work is under way for a Hickory playground in Zahra's honor to serve children with special needs. It's being built with money donated by people from all over, including proceeds from a song about Zahra by two Hickory teen musicians. About $150,000 has been raised already for the project, with more donations expected.

Wright said the "boundless park" will be built on the city-owned Kiwanis Park in Hickory. It'll have features like a semi-rigid, injury-resistant surface and, he hopes, a wheelchair-accessible treehouse.

"Children with special needs will be able to equally access almost all of the playground activities that other kids can," Wright said. "It'll mean they can play together."

The playground is expected to open next spring. Wright said it'll have a plaque with Zahra's photo and a message that has resonated with many across his community:

"Zahra, you touched us."

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