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Details sorted for ex-senator's trial; sides in Baker’s bribery case get ready for July proceedings

by Dale Ellis | June 20, 2021 at 9:11 a.m.
Gilbert Baker reads a statement on Jan. 24, 2019, outside the federal courthouse in Little Rock after he pleaded innocent to federal charges of bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy.

The legal saga of a former state senator and Republican Party operative moved a step closer to a jury trial and final resolution last week after attorneys and the presiding judge ironed out some of the necessary details.

Gilbert Baker, 64, of Conway is scheduled to go on trial July 26 in a bribery and wire fraud case. Jury selection for the trial, which is expected to last as long as three weeks, is scheduled for July 23. Baker is represented by J. Blake Hendrix and Annie Depper of the Fuqua Campbell law firm in Little Rock. Prosecutors are assistant U.S. attorneys Julie Peters and Patrick Harris, and the case will be presided over by Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr.

The attorneys and judge met Thursday in a conference to discuss trial architecture, instructions, motions and witness lists.

Baker is accused of bribing former Circuit Judge Michael Maggio as part of a scheme to get Maggio to lower a financial judgment against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in the death of patient Martha Bull, according to a 2019 federal indictment.

The scheme landed Maggio in prison after he pleaded guilty to bribery and after admitting that he reduced the monetary judgment against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center from $5.2 million to $1 million.

Baker, who worked as a lobbyist, helped arrange contributions for Maggio's campaign for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals in exchange for lowering the judgment, according to the indictment. Baker has pleaded innocent.

Baker's appearance for the pretrial hearing was waived. Hendrix explained that Baker's absence was because of a previous obligation.

"I explained to him that today is procedural. I explained to him that he has a right to be at all critical stages," Hendrix said. "It's debatable if this is a critical stage of the proceedings since it's procedural, I'm assuming, but regardless, he had a prior engagement in Monticello."

"The critical moments of the case, that's a kind of a fuzzy standard so I appreciate the clarity," Marshall said.

The judge denied a motion by Baker's legal team to include a supplemental list of questions for prospective jurors that was filed May 24. The questionnaire asked such things as what news outlets jurors watch and read, with which political party they are affiliated and what websites they frequent.

One question asks prospective jurors what "broadcast news stations" they watch, including MSNBC, Fox News, CNN and the Public Broadcasting Service, among some of the options.

Prospective jurors also were asked to list "Internet websites that you visit regularly, or any email lists or message services you subscribe to, for news/current events." Other questions pertained to political affiliation and activities, while some questions were biographical or personal. There were 92 questions on the questionnaire.

Hendrix said that although the court had covered a wide array of topics in its draft questions or voir dire, he would have preferred to see more questions regarding tort reform and nursing homes, which he said were well covered in the questionnaire submitted by his team. He said the additional questions would help make selection of jurors more efficient.

"In a case like this ... I know we don't get our list and jury bios until a week before trial, which couldn't be a more inconvenient time," Hendrix said. "Jury selection, the media research and jury research is a standard of care that defense attorneys do for defendants and when we get it the week before, as you know the kind of pressure in trying to get ready in that last week and do all of the jury research creates a burden in trying to get everything done."

Hendrix said he felt like the supplemental questionnaire would assist both defense and prosecution in completing jury research.

"We think the jury questionnaire is unnecessary," Peters countered. "We have reviewed the court's voir dire, and we believe that all of the issues are extremely well covered. ... The goal is to pick a fair jury so that you can be fair and impartial to both sides. It's not necessary to pick people of a certain political persuasion."

Peters said another concern was that after prospective jurors had answered questions so specific to the case itself, some of them might be tempted to do further research into the case before being sworn in and admonished by the court not to do so.

"I believe it's very difficult, if not impossible, for advocates to not try their case in voir dire," Marshall said in denying the motion. "I know counsel gave best efforts to take off the advocate's hat, but there's still danger lurking there."

Marshall told Hendrix to submit a list of areas he thinks were not adequately covered in the court's draft questions and that he would consider "adding the areas, think about what I might say about them to draw out information, but it does not start trying the case."

Marshall added that he would contact the jury coordinator to see if a list of potential jurors could be provided earlier but warned that an earlier list likely would be over-inclusive with names of potential jurors who would immediately withdraw from consideration because of conflicts.

Hendrix said having the additional time to conduct juror research would still be a benefit, an argument that Marshall seemed sympathetic toward.

"I'm further away from the law office than I'd like to admit, but I do remember what the two weeks before trial are like," the judge said.

Marshall said jury selection would be held in the jury orientation room to give all parties adequate room to spread out.

"Our pandemic circumstances are improving, but we're not out of the woods yet," he said.

Because jury selection is scheduled for the Friday before opening statements, Marshall asked what the preference would be for preliminary instructions -- should he read an abbreviated version and save the full text for Monday, or give more extensive instructions before those selected are excused for the weekend.

"On the one hand, I don't want them to be thinking about the case or working on it in their mind over the weekend," he said. "I really want them to leave it here in the courtroom, but I also want to minimize the chance ... that they will be tempted to do any internet research or anything like that."

Hendrix and Peters were in favor of giving jurors more instructions along with the admonishment to avoid talking about or researching the case.

"Tell them they'll learn more about the case in court than they ever will on the internet," Hendrix said.

In other matters, Marshall instructed Peters to submit a list of witnesses by July 9 and for Hendrix to submit any additions to that list by July 16.

Both sides agreed that opening statements should take no more than 30 minutes and closing statements should take about an hour.

Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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