By Jack Molitor
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Sam Hanna and Rodney Cummings have been in law enforcement for decades. They’ve both served as police officers, and between them they’ve investigated many murders.
But the details of Frederick Baer’s murder of 26-year-old Cory Clark and her 4-year-old daughter Jenna still make them shiver.
“I’ve worked a lot of cases, and I’ve seen a lot of things, but a man like Fred Baer and what he did, it’s the sort of thing you never forget,” Hanna said.
Hanna, who was the Madison County Sheriff Department’s lead detective for the case, is now the chief of police in Elwood. Cummings, a longtime Anderson police officer, is now the Madison County prosecutor. He built the case against Baer that led to his conviction.
“I don’t remember a lot of cases because there have been so many, but some of them stand out,” Cummings said. “This is at the top of that list.”
That’s the sentiment of nearly everyone who was involved with the investigation and resulting litigation. Time has passed, and the principle characters in the investigation and trial have changed places, but the memory is indelibly scarred in their minds.
Hanna and the homicide team arrived at Clark’s home near Lapel about 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 25, 2004. They found a gruesome scene that defies description.
“It was horrible. It made me angry. Very angry,” Cummings said.
Cummings, who helped with the investigation, pointed out tire tracks found in the road near the home. Witnesses helped describe a suspicious man who had been walking around the neighborhood earlier. That along with the description of the suspect’s vehicle helped investigators track Baer to the construction site where he had been missing from work for about two hours.
The tires on Baer’s car matched the markings near the Lapel home. Jenna’s blood was also found in the car.
They had found the murderer in less than 24 hours after the murders. It’s something that still makes Hanna proud.
When police executed the warrant on Baer’s home, they found much more than they expected. “Trophies,” items taken from the home of victims, from seven unsolved rapes in Marion and Hamilton counties were found in his home. Baer, who was already a convicted thief, was also a serial rapist — and now a murderer.
Baer responded defiantly to the accusations, telling the media he didn’t murder anyone and he wouldn’t hurt a butterfly. For more than a year leading up to the trial, which was in April and May 2005, the defense and prosecution sought evidence, interviewed witnesses and experts, and built their cases.
Jeffrey Lockwood, now a deputy prosecutor, was the lead defense counsel for Baer. He said he remembers trying his best to work for Baer, but his unrepentant attitude and a mountain of evidence presented a difficult defense.
“He seemed difficult during the trial. As to his motivations then, I haven’t a clue what he was thinking,” Lockwood said. “It’s as if he was trying to live up to a bad boy image.”
Lockwood said he doesn’t believe in the death penalty because it’s ineffective as a deterrent and cost prohibitive. Still, he said in decades of trials he hasn’t seen many cases with such grisly details.
“Nothing compares to a death-penalty case. I felt like I was in a fishbowl, like everyone was looking over my shoulder,” Lockwood said. “It’s a big responsibility to have someone’s life in your hands. The subject matter is always emotional, on both sides.”
A special judge, Fredrick Spencer, and a special jury from Huntington were selected for the unusual case. Spencer, who declined to speak on the record about the trial for legal reasons, denied a guilty but mentally ill plea from Baer and Lockwood, which almost certainly would have kept the death penalty off the table. The insanity plea from Baer rang false to the jurors, and after finding him guilty they recommended the death sentence.
“I think they [the jurors], coming from a place without a lot of crime, were just overwhelmed by the details. How could someone commit such a horrible crime?” Cummings said.
After the direct appeal was denied, the case moved to the Indiana Supreme Court for the post-conviction relief level of appeals in December 2008. This stage focuses on whether due process was followed and whether the legal procedure was satisfied, rather than the actual details of the case.
Appellate defense attorney Mark Maynard of Anderson argued Baer didn’t receive adequate counsel during the trial, that the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment, which prevents cruel and unusual punishment, and that Spencer unfairly rejected Baer’s mentally ill plea.
The decision fell to Madison Circuit Court 3 Judge Thomas Newman, who last week said he has his own reservations about the death penalty but never allows them to influence his decisions. In total, the defense challenged 103 different points of the trial. Newman addressed each, point by point.
“I decided he wasn’t entitled,” Newman said. “I personally don’t believe in the death penalty, but when you’re a judge, that’s not really relevant. I don’t allow my personal beliefs to influence me. I’ve overseen many murder cases, including eight death penalty cases. I’ve given the death penalty to three people.”
In the decision, Newman wrote Baer’s mentally ill plea was an issue for the direct appeal level, not for post-conviction relief, and denied the appeal. He said he remembered Baer being difficult, and that he needed heavy medication just to sit still in court. After one day, he decided Baer couldn’t stay and continued with the decision.
“I’ve been in law for a long time, and this was one of the more horrendous cases I’ve seen, as far as the details. It’s right up there,” Newman said. “It’s almost scary.”
Baer is now in the Federal District level of appeals, which will be decided in Indianapolis after court congestion clears. The rest of the appeals process, which could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, could still last more than five years.
But Baer is already considering dropping the process and accepting the sentence. After eight years on death row and the weight of his crimes on his mind, he said it would be a release for him at this point. He wouldn’t be the first. Four Indiana death row inmates since 1977 waived their appeals and were executed.
Lockwood said the roller coaster of emotions for a death row inmate is quite common, but defense attorneys strongly discourage terminating the process. It’s difficult to stop. Once the appeals process is stopped, it can’t be started again.
“Life shouldn’t be considered cheap. No matter who it is. That’s what I believe, and I think that’s how most people feel,” Lockwood said. “There are lots of ups and downs and emotions with the victim’s family, their own family. The entire process is very emotional. For everyone.”
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