The California Supreme Court Monday affirmed a judgment against a man on death row for raping and murdering his ex-girlfriend, whose decomposing body was discovered in the Palm Springs area.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s opinion on behalf of the full court, written in response to an automatic appeal, began by quoting the victim.
“Judy Palmer told a friend that she was afraid of defendant Paul Wesley Baker and that `if anything happened to her, he did it.’ Within a few weeks, Palmer disappeared. Her body was found in the desert several weeks later, severely decomposed,” the opinion states.
Baker, now 59, was sentenced to death in January 2009 after being convicted of first-degree murder, rape and other charges stemming from the 2004 death of Palmer, 60, his former girlfriend and a resident of Reseda.
Jurors also found Baker guilty of the rape or sodomy of two other victims, one of whom sustained great bodily injury as a result, dating back as far as 1995.
Baker was acquitted of rape or sodomy charges alleged by three additional women. Evidence was also presented at trial of uncharged assaults against other women, which the defense had argued was unduly prejudicial.
Palmer’s body — wrapped in blankets and foam padding and tied in a fetal position — was found on May 11, 2004, by a transient near Interstate 10 and Gene Autry Trail in the Palm Springs area.
Near the skeletal remains, investigators found a dental chart with Palmer’s name, a notice of privacy practices with Baker’s name and a picture with the inscription, “Judy, I’ll always love you, no matter what. I miss you very much. Love Paul B.”
Authorities were not able to determine how she had been killed.
At Baker’s sentencing, Judge Susan M. Speer said the killing “took place in revenge and anger” after Palmer rejected the defendant. The judge noted that Baker had demonstrated a “pattern of criminality and violence against women.”
While he had an “extremely harsh and impoverished childhood,” which may have contributed to his problems with substance abuse, those circumstances did not cause Baker to commit murder, the judge said then.
Palmer and Baker met through Alcoholics Anonymous. Palmer had been sober for nearly 28 years when she met Baker, who was 17 years her junior, and she was dedicated to helping others in the program, according to the California Supreme Court’s opinion.
Baker worked for Palmer as a handyman and they had an on-again, off-again relationship that included a period of time living together.
Both Palmer’s son and her apartment manager testified that Baker made threats against her.
Los Angeles police said shortly after Baker’s arrest that he and Palmer were involved in a volatile relationship and that he had previously been arrested on April 5, 2004, after forcing his way into Palmer’s apartment.
Baker was served with a restraining order on April 7 and remained in police custody until April 15, 2004. Palmer was reported missing by relatives three days later. He was arrested the following month and has remained behind bars since then.
In his opening brief, Baker’s appellate attorney contended that his client’s trial was “decidedly unfair and violated fundamental notions of due process” and that there was insufficient evidence to find that he raped or attempted to rape his ex-girlfriend.
In its response brief, the California Attorney General’s Office countered that jurors could “reasonably conclude that appellant bound Judy to facilitate his forcible commission of sexual acts against her while she remained alive and thereafter murdered her to prevent her from identifying and inculpating him in the sexual offenses.”
The California Supreme Court agreed that there was sufficient evidence of a rape, including semen found on her body, a crass statement by Baker to another man that seemed an admission of intercourse, Baker’s propensity for sexual assault, and the victim’s fear of Baker, which may have led jurors to conclude that consensual sex was unlikely.
The high court did find some errors by the trial court, including in admitting certain DNA evidence at the guilt phase, but concluded that the errors, even taken in combination, were not prejudicial.
The defense had also challenged the prosecution’s decision to peremptorily excuse two Black potential jurors. The prosecutor said she believed it would be difficult for either of the two to support the death penalty.
Justice Goodwin H. Liu wrote a brief concurring opinion disagreeing with the court’s precedent for assuming that the trial court appropriately carries out its duty to assess the credibility of a prosecutor’s reasons for striking jurors.
“I continue to believe the better rule is to require the trial court to affirmatively demonstrate on the record that it has made a sincere and reasoned effort to evaluate the prosecutor’s explanations for a contested strike,” Liu wrote.
Still, based on a review of the record in this particular case, Liu said he believed the defendant failed to show that the prosecutor’s reasons for striking the two jurors were based on anything other than their demeanor or answers to questionnaires, as opposed to race-based.
The court declined to revisit its precedent in response to Baker’s challenges to California’s death penalty.
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