WACO, Texas – Jurors on Thursday sentenced a former Texas minister to 65 years in prison for murdering his wife and trying to cover it up as a suicide.
Jurors deliberated for about two hours before agreeing on the sentence for 38-year-old Matt Baker. He had faced from probation to life in prison for slipping his wife sleeping pills and suffocating her in 2006.
The case almost never went to trial. Her death was deemed a suicide after a note and sleeping pills were found by the bed, and Baker said she was depressed over their 16-month-old daughter's cancer death in 1999. But authorities reopened the case several months later after her parents shared evidence obtained for their wrongful death lawsuit against Baker.
When the judge asked if there was any legal reason why he should not be sentenced, Baker said: "I truly believe in my innocence. I believe the jury made a mistake in this."
During closing arguments, prosecutor Crawford Long — who previously called Baker a "murdering minister" — said he killed his wife in "cold-blooded cruelty" and seemed to take pleasure in getting away with it.
"Folks, I can look every one of you in the eye and say Matt Baker deserves the maximum sentence, and Matt Baker, I can look you in the eye and say because of your heartless, soulless conduct, you do deserve a maximum sentence," Long said, glaring and pointing at Baker.
Defense attorney Harold Danford said Baker "did some things he's not proud of" but reminded jurors that Baker was eligible for probation because he had not previously been convicted of a felony. He urged jurors to consider Baker's entire life and activities such as youth mission trips and his work as a Baptist pastor.
Prosecutor Susan Shafer said Baker was dangerous because he still could fool people into believing he was a good person. She said the "best of Matt" was his two daughters, who were asleep in the house when he killed his wife.
"He thought no more of them than to murder their mother and then erase her legacy with them by convincing them that she didn't love them enough to stay and raise them, that she committed suicide," Shafer told jurors.
Baker, who did not testify during the trial, was convicted late Wednesday.
Kari's mother Linda Dulin told Baker that the family had decided to forgive him for the sake of the daughters.
"You took her from us Matt, you discarded her like she was yesterday's trash ... and you left so many other victims," Dulin said in her victim impact statement at sentencing.
"What you did was horrific ... and I believe you are capable of much more evil."
As deputies led him from the courtroom, Baker turned to his mother.
"Love you Mom," he said. "Take care of Kensi and Grace."
Jurors declined to comment after the trial.
Baker's attorney Guy James Gray had told jurors that he was on trial only because he lied about having an affair.
The state's key witness was his ex-mistress Vanessa Bulls, who told jurors that Baker slipped his wife the prescription sleep aid Ambien, handcuffed her to the bed under the guise of spicing up their marriage, and smothered her with a pillow after she fell asleep. Baker told Bulls he typed a suicide note and rubbed Kari's lifeless hand over it in case it was tested for fingerprints, she testified.
Then he called 911 and said he moved her to the floor, dressed her nude body and began doing CPR, but witnesses testified that was impossible in the few minutes before police arrived.
Baker told a police officer that Kari was fine before he left the house 45 minutes earlier to run errands, but in different media interviews said she was asleep or awake. He told the officer that the door from the garage to the house was locked and told others that the bedroom door was locked, witnesses testified.
Baker also searched numerous pharmaceutical Web sites and almost bought Ambien online, according to other testimony. Ambien was one of three drugs found in Kari Baker's body, according to the autopsy results.
Shortly after her death, he removed Kari's pictures and clothes and replaced them with photos of Bulls with his daughters, according to testimony. He also looked at engagement rings with Bulls.
During sentencing Thursday, four women testified that Baker had made unwanted sexual advances toward them, including one who complained to police of an attempted sexual assault.
Baker also used his church-issued laptop and a computer at a youth center to look at pornographic Web sites and those for married adults who want to have affairs, Noel Kersh, a computer forensics examiner, testified Thursday.
Several people who knew Baker as a child or teen called him a "good guy," and Sharon Rollins who grew up with him described him as charming and flirtatious, but that she "never took it as an advance."
Jeanne Lehrmann, a member of a Baptist church in Riesel where Baker was pastor several years ago, testified that he was a fine pastor.
"I truly felt that he is a man of God," Lehrmann said, adding that she still felt that way and did not believe much of the trial evidence.