DUNLAP, Tenn. — Whether Susan L. Baker killed 55-year-old Clifford Carden and helped dump his body in the Sequatchie River was not disputed in her murder trial that started Tuesday in Sequatchie County, but defense lawyer Sam Hudson told jurors in his opening statements to consider why she did what she did.
Baker is charged with felony murder, especially aggravated robbery and setting fire to personal property in Carden's Feb. 2, 2011, slaying in South Sequatchie County. Co-defendant Bryan Bettis is also charged with the same crimes, but his case has been separated for a future day in court.
Prosecution witnesses and Baker's own statements placed her and Bettis with Carden on the day he was killed, and a photo of Baker and Carden taken on her cellphone that day was shown to jurors in action before Judge Buddy Perry in Sequatchie County Circuit Court on Tuesday.
Assistant District Attorney Steve Strain told jurors Baker and Bettis plotted to rob Carden of prescription medication and money and use his car to haul his body to the river on Frank Tate Road. Hudson countered that Baker was more likely along for the ride and spontaneously fired the fatal shot only after Carden grabbed her arm as the trio rode along a one-lane gravel road in an area of South Sequatchie County known as Cartwright's Gulf.
Carden was shot by Baker in the right side of the head with a 9 mm pistol at close range, according to Strain.
Hudson maintained that Baker had no motive to kill Carden when she already had access to Carden's medications and money in a relationship she described in statements as "boyfriend/girlfriend." Hudson asserted that Baker was addicted to pain medication that left her amenable to other people's wishes and directions.
State witnesses included Carden's wife, who testified about what she saw missing from her estranged husband's home after the killing and Baker's and Bettis' visit to the Bledsoe County home afterward. A clerk at a convenience store in town testified about the pair purchasing gasoline said to fuel the burning of Carden's car, and the manager at the motel where they stayed the next few days before parting ways testified about their checking in about 5 p.m. the day of the slaying.
An acquaintance of Bettis' also testified about finding the pair walking along the road near where deputies later located the burned car, and about taking them to the local Walmart where they went shopping on money -- $1,005 -- they took from Carden's car, according to testimony.
In video surveillance footage from the Mountain Inn Suites motel where the pair stayed, Baker and Bettis could be seen checking in and carrying bags full of items, including some that could be linked to those taken from Carden's home in the New Harmony community atop Graysville Mountain.
Under examination by Strain, Sequatchie County Sheriff's Office Detective Jody Lockhart testified about blood and "drag marks" found at the site where Carden's body was found Feb. 3, 2011.
Lockhart also played surveillance video from Walmart that showed Baker and Bettis entering and checking out with numerous items said to have been purchased with money stolen from Carden.
The trial was to resume with Lockhart on the stand today.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...