A man in prison for nearly 24 years for hacking a retired bellhop to death with an ice pick was granted a new trial Wednesday.
Eddie Baker’s supporters cheered and sobbed when a judge ruled that his court-appointed attorney was so inept as to undermine the “truth-determining process” during his 1974 trial.
Stephen Gibbons, 75, was robbed and slain at his home on Dec. 22, 1973. Donahue Wise, a heroin junkie, was arrested and told police he was there at the time but the crimes were the work of Clifford Walker and Baker, then 17.
Baker said he told police he was across town attending a wake but that officers handcuffed him and beat him until he confessed. The confession was thrown out of court and three witnesses corroborated Baker’s story, but he was convicted based on Wise’s testimony.
At the urging of a minister who works to free innocent inmates, Wise recanted last December after he was shot and partially paralyzed. Wise said he, Walker, Garland Scott and another man robbed and killed Gibbons.
In granting a new trial, Common Pleas Judge C. Darnell Jones noted that Wise, the prosecution’s key witness, had changed his story and said Baker’s attorney failed to call character witnesses or challenge contradictions in the prosecution’s case.
The violations “so undermine the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place,” Jones said.
Based on Wise’s testimony, Baker and Walker were sentenced to life. Walker’s conviction was overturned and he was freed in 1979. Wise served three years of a three-to-12 year sentence.
Warren Scott, the older brother of Garland Scott, told the judge in December that he knew Baker was innocent but kept it a secret for more than 20 years.
“I couldn’t step forward and tell on my brother,” Scott said. His brother, who was never charged, died about seven years ago. “I feel guilty about it, but today I feel a great burden is being lifted.”
The Rev. James McCloskey, who worked for three years to exonerate Baker, said Baker was “in a state of shock and disbelief.”
“He was crying,” McCloskey said. “It’s like an out-of-body experience. It’s surreal to him.”