Attorney Baker fights to keep clients alive

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Attorney Burt Baker squinted his eyes and thought long and hard when asked what he considered to be the successful conclusion of one of his cases.

"My client gets life in prison," he replied.

Baker is one of 15 members of Office of the Georgia Capital Defender.

The office provides resources to attorneys involved in death penalty cases and also indigent defense.

All of Baker's clients are facing capital murder charges and are staring possible execution dead in the eye. In his more than four years on the job, Baker has helped spare six lives.

"Yes, these people could be called the dregs of society, but our constitution calls for a robust defense regardless of the crime." Baker said. "Knowing I have saved six lives by not going to trial by reaching plea bargains is extremely gratifying to me. Had we gone to trial there is a high likelihood these people would have been convicted and sentenced to death."

Baker has worked both tables of a courtroom, serving as a Judge Advocate General with the U.S Army, as a prosecutor with the state attorney's office in Pensacola, Fla., private defense practice, as an attorney for Georgia Legal Services in Valdosta and as lead attorney for the Cordele Circuit Public Defenders Office.

His work has made him unpopular in some circles.

"We encounter hostility from everywhere," Baker said. "From the victim's family, the judge, the clients themselves and the state legislature -- we understand the politics involved.

"But any lawyer that handles criminal defense gets it. There is inherent drama in what we do."

The second of four children, Baker played baseball and tennis at Lee County High School. He was athletic and competitive -- a trait he finds comes in handy in the courtroom.

"I grew up being competitive, and it's fun to win," Baker said. "Prosecutors like to win. Defense attorneys like to win. I like to win, golf, tennis or cases, it doesn't matter."

Having dealt with death penalty cases for the past several years Baker says he's noticed a common thread running through all his clients.

"They grew up in poverty and there are usually horrific facts in their childhood," Baker said. "Some of them have head injuries or something that impairs brain function. Mental retardation, bi-polar, schizophrenia and some have been self-medicating with street drugs.

"They aren't like you and I."

Baker credits his father, Barry, for where he is today.

"My dad taught me that if you have talent that you have a responsibility to give something back," Baker recalled. "He did it through teaching. He made a good living and provided a public service at the same time."

Still, Baker's current work is stressful and can be exhausting. It's not something he'd like to do for the rest of his career.

"Five years from now I'd like to see my son (Jonathon) as a freshman in college. I still want to be in a courtroom either trying cases or presiding over them from the bench -- but I don't know how good a referee I would be.

"Or I might go back into private practice."

Or some place where life behind bars is not considered a win.