Murder trial begins in case of D.C. woman who vanished in 1999
Thursday, March 11, 2010
It's been nearly 11 years since Yolanda Baker's family has seen her. So much time had passed that authorities declared her legally dead last year, although her body has never been found.
This week, Baker's family poured into three rows of Judge Michael L. Rankin's third-floor courtroom in D.C. Superior Court, hoping for some closure in the death of the woman they nicknamed "Princess."
Last summer, authorities arrested Baker's boyfriend, Terrence Barnett, 45, the father of the D.C. woman's twin children. He has been charged with first-degree murder.
It is only the third time a "no body" murder case -- the most difficult for prosecutors -- has been tried in the District in at least 30 years, according to a spokesman in the U.S. attorney's office.
Adding to the challenge for prosecutors is the lack of eyewitnesses to Baker's disappearance or death. No murder weapon has been found and no cause of death established. When Baker's car was discovered almost a week after her disappearance, drops of her blood were found in the trunk, but no DNA from Barnett.
The trial pits two of the District's most formidable lawyers against each other: Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines and criminal defense attorney Nikki Lotze.
Haines is no stranger to prosecuting complex murder cases. She's one of the lead attorneys prosecuting Ingmar Guandique, charged in the 2001 kidnapping and killing of former federal intern Chandra Levy. That trial is scheduled to start in October.
In her 30-minute opening statement Wednesday, Haines told the jury that on the morning of Aug. 1, 1999, after attending a family party together in Suitland, Barnett killed Baker, 35, after an often-abusive seven-year relationship.
On that day, she said, Baker "disappeared into the night." Haines then walked over to Barnett, seated next to Lotze, and pointed to him: "Mr. Barnett was the last person to see Ms. Baker alive."
Haines characterized Barnett as controlling, jealous and often violent, a man whose anger "erupted suddenly, often without any warning."
The two had lived together off and on in Baker's house in the 400 block of 44th Street NE with their twins, who were 5 when Baker disappeared.
Haines talked about how the couple often argued and fought, so much so that Baker obtained a restraining order, keeping Barnett away from her for about 18 months from 1997 to early 1999. Shortly before she disappeared, a District judge had ordered Barnett to pay Baker child support for the twins.