A 22-year-old Juneau man on Thursday was found not guilty of retaliating against a witness for beating up a fellow inmate at the Juneau jail who was perceived as a “snitch.”
A jury cleared Mason T. Baker of the federal charge Thursday after hearing two days worth of evidence and closing arguments. The 11 women and one man on the jury deliberated a little over two hours before reaching a verdict around 1 p.m.
“I’m just relieved that the jury did the right thing here for Mason and his family,” said Baker’s attorney, Cara McNamara. “Mason’s grateful. We’re all grateful and relieved.”
Prosecutors accused Baker of assaulting Milan Thomas, the leader of a Sacramento-to-Juneau oxycontin ring conspiracy, in retaliation for testimony Thomas gave against one of the drug ring’s co-conspirators. Thomas had testified in the trial against Richard “Rick” Melvin Corum, 30, just days before the July 3 attack in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center gymnasium.
The defense, on the other hand, said the assault was an ordinary jail fight and was sparked by an unrelated verbal dispute between Thomas and Baker.
“Mason Baker did not retaliate against anyone,” McNamara argued in closing. “He made a mistake and got in a fight. This happens every day in jail.”
After the verdict was announced, Baker sighed in relief and hugged and thanked his attorney. He turned around and gave his younger sister a thumb’s up and told his mother he loved her.
“Thank God they saw through that Milan Thomas,” said Baker’s mother, Henriatha Jenkins, who shed tears of joy when the verdict was reached. She and her 19-year-old daughter, Taylor Baker, sat through the duration of the trial. “Mason’s made some poor choices in his life, and he’s paying for them, and he’s going to probably be OK, I think, now that this is out of the way,” she added.
Both Thomas and Baker testified during the trial but gave starkly different versions of the assault, which was captured on the jail’s security cameras and repeatedly played for the jury. Thomas claimed Baker told him during the assault, “Do you think you can rat Rick out and get away with it?” Baker insisted he never said that and claimed the assault stemmed from an incident where Thomas called him a name, and he had to stand up for himself to ensure other inmates did not think of him as a target or “prey.”
To combat that allegation, the defense ripped apart Thomas’ credibility on the witness stand and leaned on the fact that he ran a multi-million dollar drug trafficking enterprise from about 2007 to 2011 before he was caught by the authorities in February 2012. The federal public defender described Thomas, who made the U.S. Marshals Most Wanted Fugitive list as he was on the lam, as “fast and loose with the truth.”
“A leopard doesn’t change his spots,” McNamara told the jury during closing arguments.
In contrast, McNamara portrayed her client as a “goofy kid” who was just being held at LCCC on a misdemeanor charge. (His mother said he allegedly stole a snowboard. That case is still pending in state court.)
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt presented circumstantial evidence that established a connection between Baker and Corum, which was the basis for the charge: Baker and Corum were cell block mates at LCCC during the time of Corum’s trial in Juneau this past summer. They were being held in adjoining cells in a maximum security unit and had the ability to talk since the cells have open facing bar doors, testimony showed.
During closing arguments, Schmidt said there was “overwhelming” evidence that pointed to the motivation behind the jailhouse assault: the timing, the “Rick” comment, the fact that Baker was the aggressor, the fact that it was well known in the jail that Thomas was a “snitch,” and the unlikelihood that Corum kept quiet at the jail after being in court all day.
“This case is much more than (just an assault on Thomas),” Schmidt told the jurors. “It was a direct assault by Baker on the administration of justice and the integrity of this courtroom.”
The jury was not allowed to hear that Corum previously assaulted Thomas at an Anchorage jail, where they were both being held after their arrests.
After the verdict was read, Schmidt told the Empire he respects the jury’s verdict.
“Can’t win ‘em all,” he added as he left the courtroom.
Baker could have been facing up to 30 years in federal prison if he had been convicted.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.