published Friday, March 7th, 2014

Susan L. Baker guilty on all counts in Sequatchie slaying

DUNLAP, Tenn. — A Sequatchie County woman will serve at least 51 years in prison after being convicted of felony first-degree murder late Thursday.

Jurors deliberated for more than two hours before convicting 38-year-old Susan L. Baker in the Feb. 2, 2011, slaying of Bledsoe County resident Clifford Carden Jr.

Baker had been charged with felony murder, especially aggravated robbery and setting fire to personal property, along with co-defendant Bryan Bettis, whose case was previously severed from Baker's.

The jury of four men and eight women found Baker guilty on all three counts. The murder conviction carries a life sentence. That means she must serve 51 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. Now 38, she would be 89 years old.

As the jury left the courtroom, Baker stood gripping the edge of the defense table and was taken from the courtroom in tears.

Baker, who has the right to appeal the conviction, faces sentencing on the other counts on June 20.

A Carden family member who asked not to be identified said of the verdict, "Justice was done."

Carden's body was found Feb. 3, 2011, floating in the Sequatchie River at Pickett's Bridge off of East Valley Road. He was 55 years old.

Prosecutors contended Baker was guilty of felony murder and planned the robbery. Baker's defense attorney asserted she was guilty of reckless homicide and had not planned to rob Carden or steal from him until after the fatal shot was fired on a gravel road in Cartwright Gulf in South Sequatchie County.

There was no dispute whether Baker pulled trigger.

In closing statements, assistant district attorneys Steve Strain and David Shinn told jurors Baker had tried to downplay her role in the death of the man she said treated her well in a relationship she described as "boyfriend/girlfriend."

Shinn said facts of the case were corroborated by Baker's own videotaped police statement, including her admission to planning to rob Carden and testimony that she had Carden's gun after she and Carden picked up Bettis not far from the scene of the shooting.

Shinn also cited her video statement in which she demonstrated how she was situated in the car and how she drew the gun with her right hand and shot Carden in the right side of the head.

Strain told jurors Baker planned to rob Carden from before she and Carden took a photograph of themselves at 1:21 p.m. Feb. 2, 2011, then drove to the Cartwright community to pick up Bettis.

But Baker's defense lawyer, Sam Hudson, told jurors Baker never intended to rob Carden, and fired the fatal shot only after Carden grabbed her arm. Hudson contended the events that followed -- disposal of Carden's body in the Sequatchie River, taking $1,005 from Carden's car and other items from his home, burning Carden's car and a $400 shopping spree at Walmart with the victim's money -- were a "string of events that happened after the killing."

After the verdict Strain said that the sentencing range on the conviction for especially aggravated robbery was 15 to 25 years and from one to two years for the conviction for setting fire to personal property.

"We're very pleased with the verdict," he said. "The jury was very attentive and applied the facts to the law and reached a good verdict."

Hudson declined to comment on the case.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

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 ...

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