Competency questions halt Harry Baker molestation trial

The long-running criminal molestation case against former Madera County Supervisor Harry Baker is on hold again after one of his attorneys said Thursday that the 86-year-old defendant is mentally unable to assist in his own defense.

A trial for Baker, who is accused of committing lewd acts on a 13-year-old girl in a Fresno motel room in 2007, was supposed to begin on Aug. 25. But Fresno lawyer Mark Coleman, who appeared in Fresno County Superior Court with Baker on Thursday afternoon, said fellow attorney Roger Nuttall “had noticed significant impairment in (Baker’s) ability to remember things and assist him in trial.”

Judge Jonathan Conklin immediately suspended the case and ordered that Baker be evaluated by a pair of court-appointed doctors to determine his competency for trial.

In court records, Nuttall said Baker’s attending physician said in mid-June that Baker’s “current functional status, both mentally and physically, is questionable and declining.”

Baker, looking frail and pale in a dark sport coat, white trousers and a cap, was rolled into the courtroom in a wheelchair by Coleman. He sat quietly as he listened to the brief proceedings, and appeared to have difficulty hearing Conklin.

Baker, who is president of Sierra Telephone Co. in Oakhurst, was supposed to be in court Thursday morning but failed to show up. On Thursday afternoon, Conklin admonished Baker that on future court dates, “if you don't show up and we haven't heard from you, I will issue a warrant for your arrest.” Baker nodded that he understood the warning.

Nuttall said Thursday evening that while he is not intimately knowledgeable about Baker's telephone business, “I know he has a capable staff of people running the company.” He added that his client’s mental capacity comes and goes: “There are some times when he is sharp as a tack, and there are other times when he can’t remember what we talked about a week earlier.”

“I have an obligation to the court and to Mr. Baker to be honest about his ability to remember, to participate in his defense and to stand trial,” Nuttall added.

State law requires that if an attorney tells the court that his or her client may be mentally incompetent, the judge must order a hearing to determine the defendant’s competence. The court-appointed doctors are due to file their report on Baker’s competence by Sept. 4, and Conklin set the competency hearing for Sept. 11.

If Baker is found fit to continue, his trial would begin on Nov. 20. If he is deemed unable to assist his attorneys, however, the case will remain on hold “to determine whether or not there is any medical treatment that could result in a restoration of his memory,” Coleman said. “Sometimes there are prescriptions that can be helpful.”

Baker is awaiting a trial on a felony charge of committing a lewd act on the girl, who secretly recorded video of Baker as he allegedly fondled and kissed the girl's breasts. Although Baker’s attorneys contend he was ensnared in a blackmail or extortion scheme and tricked into touching the girl, a judge last year refused to dismiss the case.

Baker could face up to eight years in prison if he is convicted on the molestation charge.

Thursday’s suspension is the latest of numerous delays caused by Baker’s fragile health. Several years ago, Baker’s attorneys said, he had open-heart surgery to receive an artificial aortic valve. In March 2012, Baker appeared at a court hearing looking as if he had been beaten up and said he had been mugged.

In June 2013, Baker was in the news after he fired a gun inside a motel room in Merced. And in a bizarre turn last September, a woman called the Madera County Sheriff's Office to report that Baker had been kidnapped for ransom and taken to Modesto. Deputies eventually found Baker alive and well — and decidedly unkidnapped — in his Oakhurst office.