WACO, Texas (ABP) — A Waco judge on April 9 agreed to reduce bail to $250,000 for a former Texas Baptist minister charged with the 2006 murder of his wife. Determined to avoid a media circus surrounding the pending trial of Matt Baker, 19th State District Court Judge Ralph Strother also firmly restated a gag order imposed on all parties related to the case.
Strother set a surety bond at $250,000 after ruling favorably on a motion from Kerrville, Texas, defense attorney Richard Ellison that his client be declared indigent. The ruling clears the way for use of court-ordered funds to secure expert witnesses for trial, although Strother said he will not authorize use of taxpayer funds until receiving more specifics from the defense regarding plans to hire expert witnesses.
Baker, 37, a former minister at several Waco-area Baptist churches, formally entered a plea of not guilty at the hearing in a case that has attracted national attention. Crews from three national television networks were among news media jamming the hallway as Baker was escorted into the courtroom by deputies.
"Let me make it clear," Strother declared. "No attorney, no agent, no employee, no witness or any other person under control of the defense or prosecution is to have any contact with the press." Strother said he understands the media "have a job to do," but "I want this case tried here in this courtroom under the rules of evidence."
Strother also ordered as a condition of the bail reduction that no one from the defense may contact Vanessa Bulls, Baker's alleged girlfriend. Bulls testified before the grand jury that indicted Baker for murder.
Baker told the court that his income has plummeted by at least 70 percent since his initial arrest in September 2007. He said he now makes $400 to $500 a month from an eBay business in Kerrville. Baker said he has exhausted all of his resources, including a $40,000 insurance settlement after his wife's death and another $15,000 in a legal defense fund raised by friends and family, to pay attorneys' fees. A family friend is expected to pay the 10 to 15 percent of the surety bond required to secure Baker's release pending trial.
In a brief session with reporters following the hearing, Strother said he hopes to set a trial date for late September. The judge had earlier postponed a civil wrongful death suit filed by the parents of Baker's late wife in order to proceed with the criminal trial.
Baker, a graduate of Baylor University and Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, surrendered to authorities in Kerr County on March 27, a day after the McLennan County grand jury indicted him for murder. The indictment alleges Baker in April 2006 drugged 31-year-old Kari Lynn Baker and then suffocated her with a pillow at their home in Waco. Baker now lives with his two daughters in his hometown of Kerrville.
The death was originally ruled a suicide by sleeping pill overdose, attributed to depression brought on by never coming to terms with the death of her infant daughter from a brain tumor seven years earlier. The cause of death was later changed to "undetermined" after Kari Baker's family convinced police to doubt the suicide story.
Matt Baker was arrested and charged in September 2007, but the charge was later dismissed. The
David R. Wilkinson is executive director of Associated Baptist Press.