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Defendant denies claims of retaliation

Case will go to the jury today after closing arguments

Posted: December 19, 2013 - 12:11am
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Milan Thomas is escorted by a U.S. Marshal to the federal courtroom during the trial of Mason T. Baker on Wednesday. Baker, 22, is accused of retaliating against a witness for assaulting Thomas while both were at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Milan Thomas is escorted by a U.S. Marshal to the federal courtroom during the trial of Mason T. Baker on Wednesday. Baker, 22, is accused of retaliating against a witness for assaulting Thomas while both were at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

A 22-year-old defendant on trial in U.S. District Court in Juneau says he did not assault a fellow inmate at the Juneau jail in retaliation. Rather, Mason T. Baker said he was standing up for himself after the inmate had called him a name.

Baker took the witness stand in his own defense Wednesday, the second day of trial, and told the jury the fight was unrelated to Milan Thomas’ testimony in court just a few days prior. Baker said if he hadn’t confronted Thomas after he called him a “punk ass b****,” other inmates would think he was “soft” and therefore an easy target, Baker said.

“I was sticking up for myself,” he said, adding he wasn’t proud of starting the fight, which took place in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center gymnasium and was captured on the jail’s security cameras.

Prosecutors tell of a different story. They say Baker beat up Thomas in retaliation for Thomas testifying against Richard “Rick” Melvin Corum. The charge against Baker is a federal crime and punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Corum, 30, of Sacramento, Calif., was convicted of drug conspiracy for supplying oxycontin to Thomas’ multi-million dollar Sacramento to Juneau drug ring from about 2007 to 2011. Thomas testified against Corum, as did three other codefendants, in exchange for leniency at their own sentencing hearings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt says Corum and Baker, who was born and raised in Juneau, were cell block mates at LCCC and had the ability to talk through the cells’ open face bar doors. The government’s theory is Baker was either acting on Corum’s behest when he attacked Thomas on July 3, or took it upon himself to beat up a well-known “snitch” in order to bolster his credibility among other inmates.

Baker was not involved in the oxy ring conspiracy and was being held at for a misdemeanor case that hadn’t gone to trial yet. But LCCC employees and inmates testified on Tuesday and Wednesday it was well known at the jail that Thomas was a “snitch” because someone plastered newspaper articles up on the jail’s walls, which the guards took down, and because Corum and other co-conspirators told the other inmates about it.

Under cross examination, Baker insisted he didn’t know Thomas had “snitched,” which prompted Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt to ask him mockingly, “So you were just blissfully ignorant?”

“If that’s the way you want to put it, yes,” Baker replied.

Schmidt recalled Thomas to the stand as a rebuttal witness, and Thomas testified everyone at the jail treated him like a snitch by either avoiding him or taunting him.

“I’m an outcast,” he said, noting he knew he was going to be attacked at some point.

Thomas, who made the U.S. Marshals Most Wanted Fugitive list while he was on the lam before he was arrested in Minnesota in February 2012, was not allowed to testify that Corum had previously beat him up while they were being held at an Anchorage jail before Corum’s trial. Corum was convicted of tampering with a witness as a result of that assault.

Thomas testified earlier Wednesday, while prosecutors were still putting on their case, that he never talked to Baker before the attack, much less call him a name. He said he’d seen Baker only in passing at the jail’s church.

“We’ve never talked before or had reason to talk,” Thomas said, saying he didn’t know Baker’s name until afterward.

Cara McNamara, the federal public defender representing Baker, ripped into Thomas’ credibility under cross examination, pointing out lie after lie Thomas told authorities during the course of their investigation into the oxy drug ring. She also pointed out that Thomas could possibly receive a 50 percent reduction of his sentence, slated for April, in exchange for cooperating with the government and testifying in this trial and other court hearings.

McNamara impeached Thomas several times during cross, including once when she challenged Thomas’ testimony that he wasn’t worried the fight with Baker would affect his sentencing. Thomas told Troopers he was afraid it would, McNamara established. The defense attorney also challenged Thomas’ assertion that other people in the gym were taunting and yelling at him before Baker attacked him. She called on two other LCCC inmates who were in the jail’s gym playing basketball at the time, and both said they didn’t hear any taunts.

The two inmates also testified they didn’t hear Baker tell Thomas something to the effect of, “Did you think you could rat Rick out and get away with it,” as Thomas claimed. Under cross examination, both inmates conceded they were on the other side of the gym when the fight broke out and also there was background noise.

After prosecutors rested, McNamara moved for an acquittal, which Judge Timothy Burgess denied.

Baker, the defense’s first witness called to the stand, told the jury he previously had a verbal argument with Thomas’ half-brother, Vail Barradois Thomas, who was involved in the oxy ring and was also being held at LCCC at the time. Baker said he presumed Vail Thomas told Milan Thomas about it, which prompted Milan Thomas to call him the name.

There is one problem with that version of the story though, prosecutors pointed out — Milan Thomas testified he no longer talks with his brother. The two had a falling out after they were caught by authorities and haven’t been on speaking terms for a while. In fact, when Baker attacked Milan Thomas in the gym, Vail Thomas was standing about 10 to 15 feet away and watched without stepping in, the video shows.

Still, Baker maintains the fight was over the dispute with Thomas rather than the testimony Thomas gave at Corum’s trial in Juneau this past summer. Baker said he never met or talked to Corum, despite the fact they were in adjoining jail cells in a maximum security unit.

“Did the fight have anything to do with anyone beside Milan?” McNamara asked him.

“No, it was an issue between me and (Milan), and that’s it,” Baker said.

The defense rested its case on Wednesday, and closing arguments are scheduled to take place this morning. The case will then go to the jury.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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