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Monday, December 17, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Duel ahead in Green River trial: It's Jeff Baird for the prosecution

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In a town that's no fashion plate, Jeff Baird fits right in.

The senior deputy prosecutor for King County wears a suit to court because he has to. Always the same suit. His only suit. A dark-gray pinstriped number his wife picked out. He apparently is unwilling to yield on the shoes. They are sporty, bulky, with rubber soles and tread.

OK, so Baird, a 20-year prosecutor who year after year works to put away some of the most cunning killers around, isn't flashy.

The man who will lead the prosecution in the county's most notorious case — aggravated-first-degree-murder charges against Gary Leon Ridgway in four of the 49 killings attributed to the Green River killer — is known for a courtroom style of cool logic and an ability to present complicated evidence simply.

"He was very clear, very precise," said Rodney White, jury foreman in the 1999 trial of 20-year-old David Anderson who, along with Alex Baranyi, was charged with murdering a Bellevue family in a case that also turned on DNA. "He wasn't using those great big 50-cent words."

There was little doubt among prosecutors that Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng would choose Baird, 48, to head the Ridgway team. Maleng this week will name others to assist.

Big cases aren't won as they are on television, Maleng said, by some macho, hard-charging prosecutor.

"You're trying to have a conversation with a jury," Maleng said, adding that no one does that better than Baird.

Baird leads the felony-trial unit, serving as its "spiritual leader," Maleng said. Co-workers seek his advice and make time to watch him in the courtroom. They get tips on how to organize an argument or reinforce seemingly obvious points. For example, Baird uses flip charts so jurors can read, as well as hear, key phrases in his closing arguments. Baird also is considered expert at heightening emotions at just the right time, without being too showy.

In at the beginning

He founded the office's Most Dangerous Offender Project, which brings prosecutors into homicide cases at the same moment police are called, and is considered one of the state's pre-eminent legal experts on DNA evidence, which could be key in the Ridgway case.

And, say colleagues, Baird possesses the office's keenest intellect, "a special gift ... to focus on detail and not be distracted as some people are," said Tim Bradshaw, another senior deputy prosecutor.

The Green River case — nearly 20 years old, the largest unsolved string of killings in the nation — will call on all of Baird's skills and experience.

Baird sees no point in talking to the news media about any of that. "Respectfully," he said, using the polite introduction he has used so often with judges and juries, "I'd rather not."

But in taking on the Ridgway case, and all of its Green River history and horror, Baird's profile is already raised.

After winning the first-degree-murder conviction last week of three men in the South Seattle killing last December of Khuong Vu, Baird talked with the jurors.

Within minutes, one juror looked at Baird and said, "Hey, you're the Green River guy!''

While typically low-key, Baird also can make jurors cry — and defense attorneys roll their eyes.

Ten-year peeve

Miriam Schwartz is still irritated, and it has been more than 10 years since she lost to Baird as she defended George Russell on charges that he beat three Eastside women to death in the summer of 1990.

Russell, convicted in part on DNA evidence, got a life sentence.

In Baird's closing argument, he told jurors that if they had a reasonable doubt that Russell killed the women, they should let him go. But even as he reminded the jury of that basic legal tenet, Baird suggested that if jurors did acquit Russell, he'd go to California and start killing there.

"He'll find new friends," Baird said. "There is no shortage of naïve, trusting, foolish young people in the cities of this country. He will settle in. He will begin looking for work. You could say he will be hunting for a job, and he will find it."

On appeal, the state Supreme Court called Baird's remarks "egregious," though not sufficiently flagrant to warrant a new trial.

"Outrageous," Schwartz said. "It's a good example of Jeff Baird's style."

Schwartz recalled another Baird moment that irks her still. In 1991, she defended William Pawlyk on two charges of aggravated-first-degree murder in the Issaquah slashing deaths of KIRO-TV personality Larry Sturholm and nurse Debra Sweiger.

No one disputed that Pawlyk had killed the two, and he was convicted. But Schwartz had argued he was insane.

To show that Pawlyk was anything but, Baird called to the stand a waiter from a fancy Snoqualmie Falls restaurant and went over, item by tasty item, all that Pawlyk ordered for his seven-course breakfast before committing the crimes.

"This probably took half an hour," Schwartz said. "The clotted cream on the pancakes. ... A typical lawyer paints a picture. I thought it was a bit much."

Baird has never tried a death-penalty case, and it is not known whether Maleng will stick to that course in the case of Ridgway, charged with killing Opal Mills, 16; Cynthia Hinds, 17; Carol Christensen, 21; and Marcia Chapman, 31.

Maleng has 30 days to decide after an arraignment tomorrow.

Death-penalty foe

Baird opposes the death penalty, and over the years cases have been shifted to keep them off his desk. Others in Maleng's office also oppose the death penalty but have been willing to participate in the trial, if not the penalty phase. In the Ridgway case, Maleng said, Baird will be kept on — no matter what punishment is sought. Maleng said he has not talked with Baird about the issue.

But, Maleng said, there likely will be four lawyers on the prosecution team, and if the death penalty is sought, responsibility for that aspect of the case would not have to rest with Baird.

Seattle Times staff reporter Nancy Bartley contributed to this report. Beth Kaiman can be reached at 206-464-2441 or bkaiman@seattletimes.com.

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