Charles Baker, innovative DA, dies at 72


Former Walker County District Attorney Charles D. Baker, a brilliant courtroom orator who helped modernize local law enforcement with training and techniques, died Tuesday night at Walker Baptist Medical Center after an apparent heart attack. He was 72. 

"This county will never know the debt they have to Charles," said District Attorney Bill Adair, who was elected in 2010.

Baker, who retired in 2011 after 36 years as the longest serving district attorney in the state, had been suffering heart problems, the family said in a statement Friday. He was surrounded by his family when he died.

Collins-Burke Funeral Home in Jasper has announced visitation will be held Monday from 6 to 8 p.m., as well as funeral services on Tuesday at 1 p.m. Burial will follow at Oak Hill Cemetery. 

Baker was born on July 15, 1947, in Coal Valley, the son of the late Hollis K. Baker and Ruth H. Baker. 

"The thing I will always remember about Charles is that he never forgot where he came from. Everyone who came into that office, he treated with respect, I don't care who they were," Adair said. 

He recalled him working on a tractor on his father's farm and then giving away produce to people. Baker and his father delivered gasoline to people, giving it to them for free when they couldn't afford to pay. 

Adair noted that Baker also worked for the late U.S. Sen. Jim Allen when he was younger, and that traditional New Deal viewpoints of the Democratic Party also helped to shape his view in how others should be treated. Baker ran unopposed as a Democrat for years. 

"Charles graduated with a business degree from the University of Alabama and then continued his education at Cumberland law school," the family said in a statement. "Charles also worked at his father’s gas station during the summers driving a fuel truck. His first job was county solicitor for Walker County." 

Adair said Baker had been essentially promised an assistant DA job by long-time District Attorney Gerald D. Colvin. Baker - who had been driving a Dodge pickup - even purchased a car based on that promise, but in the end the job went to someone else. The family said Baker's father told him to just run for the district attorney position, which he decided to do. 

Baker defeated Colvin, 8,856 to 6,935 in 1974. The Daily Mountain Eagle reported Baker "was incredulous over the rather comfortable margin enjoyed over what many considered an unbeatable opponent." When someone said, "I didn't think you could do it," Baker replied, "I didn't, either." 

The Eagle said at 26, Baker was the youngest DA ever elected in the county, and some Democratic leaders though he might be the youngest ever elected in the state. Baker said in a victory interview he had goals of stricter law enforcement and more aggressive prosecution. 

Frank Cole, who was chief investigator for Baker and who works part-time in the DA's office now, said, he would take Baker over a Harvard lawyer, as he was "brilliant" on criminal law. "He was the master of the courtroom," he said. 

When a big trial was underway, some courthouse offices would close so employees could hear Baker make closing arguments. Adair agreed.

"Charles' closing arguments were legendary," he said. In one murder case, Adair recalled Baker gave an hour-long closing statement without looking at notes, quoting Bible scripture at times. "It was amazing," he said. 

He said the greatest compliment to Baker was when one of the state's foremost criminal defense attorneys, Richard Jaffe, was against Baker in a murder case. Normally someone in Baker's office gave a quick closing, followed by the defense attorney, and then Baker would give his big statement. 

After a five-minute summation from an assistant DA, Jaffe said, "Your Honor, we're not guilty" - and then sat down, winking at Cole. When Baker rose to speak, the late Judge James Brotherton said, "Charles, he didn't do a closing argument so I'm not going to let you do one, because the final close is to rebut whatever the defense said." Baker yelled, "Hold on, hold on!" but to no avail. 

Jaffe later told Adair he didn't do the close because he knew how well Baker could sway the jury. Baker was furious afterward, but Adair told him it was a great complement to him. "Well, I guess you're right," Baker said. 

Adair noted Baker was also a step ahead of experts during a trial. "Charles' mind was as quick and nimble as anyone I've every seen."

Cole said Baker was a "people person," although he might not express himself well. Adair said he was quiet in a small group, as if shy, but could speak well in a large group. 

"People misunderstood him so much," he said. "He was such a good human. In all the years I've been around Charles, I've never seen him make a difference between a rich man or a poor man, a black man or a white man. Everybody with Charles was treated the same, and I think that's what first attracted me. I knew this was a good person." He said Baker would call others out "in a minute" if he felt they were not being treated right. 

Adair and Cole talked about how Baker had an open-door policy and how every morning staff and other lawyers - including ones the DA's office would be opposing in court - started the day early in that office, talking over cups of coffee. 

"That's the way he ran his office. It was more of a family situation," Adair said. 

"If you were having problems, he was going to try to help you," Cole said. On the job, "if you were doing the right things, he would back you to the end of the world." 

Cole said Baker would talk about his sons. "He worshipped the ground they walked on. He was real proud of them." Adair said, "He loved his two boys more than life itself. I saw him give up things personally just to give to his sons," he said. 

Meanwhile, Adair said, "Charles doesn't get the credit he deserves for bringing law enforcement into the 21st Century." Baker took money out of any fund he had to help law enforcement get training. "I don't think that could be underestimated," he said. "He did so much for law enforcement to try to get us modernized." 

Cole recalled where he and Baker was at a Tampa, Fla., school teaching about how a dog from Pennsylvania would pick up scents in a rape case. Returning to an important capital murder case back home he was worrying about, Baker eventually got Cole to bring the dog and his handler to Walker County. The dog then confirmed much of the evidence in the case by going over the scene and the evidence. At least one confession came after evidence was presented to a subject. 

The person who arranged the murder out of county, R.J. Bates, was later convicted. Cole said participants had not been in the hallway long waiting for the jury, and three minutes before a decision came back, the man handed over his wallet and other items to his lawyer. "I'm never leaving this place," he said. 

"Deep down, I think that was one of Charles' proudest moments" in court, he said. 

Baker arranged for a basement office to where the fingerprints were being analyzed, thanks to $25,000 in equipment that was obtained. "The FBI would send prints from all over the country for us" to analyze, Adair said. Also, Baker was one of the first DAs to have a check unit. 

"It was amazing to see the things he was doing from the ground up," he said. Baker sent Adair and (now state Rep.) Connie Rowe, then starting as a DA investigator in the early 1990s, to South Carolina, which had started a new program called deferred prosecution. 

"Now, that is something done all over the State of Alabama, but he was the first one in the state to start a deferred prosecution program," he said. 

Baker started Daybreak, which Adair called "one of the first rural spouse abuse centers in the State of Alabama." A woman who had been beaten was living under the viaduct in a car, he said, while Baker's office was prosecuting the man who had beaten her and hurt her child. The family said the woman approached Baker and told him she had nowhere to go. 

"He took money out of his own pocket and paid for her a hotel room," Adair said. "More than once," Cole added. 

Baker then got community leaders together the next day to create Daybreak, the family said. Adair and Cole remembered following Baker to Montgomery to lobby for funding for the program when cuts to it were threatened.

"There was a lot of innovation he had that was cutting edge for the time, and even today we still use some of that," Adair said. 

Adair credited Baker with giving him a career. Baker only interviewed Adair before hiring him as assistant district attorney.  Cole said Adair and Baker were so alike that one can talk to Adair and it feels like you are talking to Baker. 

"I owe Charles everything," Adair said. 

The 1974 tornado had an impact on Baker, who laughed when he told Adair of campaigning where the old Dairy Queen was downtown when the tornado hit. Women were screaming, and he urged them to an area to crouch down, and he put his arms over them. 

"He looked up and he put them right under the cooler that was fixin' to tip," Adair said, laughing. "He said, 'I almost killed every one of them.'" Cole added, "Some of them had said they were going to vote for him." 

Less funny was the fact the tornado damaged the courthouse, leading him to start from scratch in rebuilding the office.

"They didn't have any case files. They didn't have nothing to work on," Adair said. "They had a trailer back over where Maddox was" to house the DA office in the aftermath. Office personnel would wish someone would come to the office because no one would come. 

Adair and Cole said Baker's high point may have been the conviction of Greg Hunt about 1989 or 1990, representing the first capital murder verdict in the county in 50 years. Adair assisted Baker in the case, the first time the office used DNA evidence. Hunt remains on death row, Cole said. 

Baker retired in 2010, with Adair noting that he seemed weary of litigation that dragged on at that time with the fights over electronic bingo and gambling. "That might have been a low point for him," he said. 

"This job will wear you out," Adair said, both mentally and physically. "I don't see how he went 36 years." He pointed to the amount of threats that Baker had over the years. 

"I remember the FBI coming up here several times to tell him there are legitimate death threats from organized crime up here. That didn't get talked about a lot. He withstood all that and went forward," he said. 

Cole said it was an honor to work for Baker and "a blessing to have him as a friend." Adair called him a mentor, and, after he rose to DA, still welcomed Baker to his office to gain advice. "I encouraged that as much as I could because he was a wealth of knowledge," he said.  He also kept many of Baker's practices, including the open door policy and the training

Baker is survived by the mother of his children, Johnna Baker; sons, Charles David Baker, Jr. (Chase) and John Grant Baker; and a sister, JoAnn Armstrong (Jim).

Honorary pallbearers are Horace Nation, Bill Manasco, Larry Lapkovitch, Tony Burgett, Glenn Burgett, Bob Wilson Jr., Garve Ivey III, J.C. Poe, Brent Thornley, Matt Daughtery, former Sheriff Jim Underwood, Scott Jackson, Gregg Jackson, Rusty Prestridge, Jim Sumner, Gene Manasco, Buel Tubbs and Gene McDaniel. Honorable Mentions: The Blackwater Breakfast Club. 

Pallbearers are Bobby Tom Crowe, Paul Messerole, Bill Adair, Bill Adair, Herbie Brewer, Thomas Burgett, Frank Cole, and Jeff Donaldson.