Over the past three years Honeysuckle has followed the case of Matthew Baker, a young man who has been in jail since 2016 based on suspicions of his involvement in an incident known as The Bonfire Killings. Read more about the background of the case here to see why advocates are fighting to prove Baker's innocence and that racial bias has played a major role in his imprisonment.

The Execution Of Willie Pye

On the night of March 21, 2024, the State of Georgia executed Willie Pye, a Black man convicted in the murder of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough in 1993. 

Pye was accused of raping and killing Yarborough, with whom he had an on-and-off romantic relationship, with the help of two accomplices. An overwhelming amount of evidence, including DNA from the victim’s body and a confession from one accomplice, implicated Pye as the ringleader of the crime. 

Pye’s execution was the first state execution since 2020, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The 59-year-old tried to appeal his case with a clemency request, arguing everything from his intellectual disability to ineffective assistance of counsel to the pandemic’s pause on executions were reasons to spare his life.

However, The U.S. Supreme Court denied his requests and at 11:03PM that evening, he died by lethal injection. Pye’s execution came weeks before the recent report from anti-death penalty organization Reprieve found that Black people are 220 percent more likely to receive a botched execution than their white counterparts. 

In Georgia alone, 86 percent of botched lethal injection executions were carried out on Black people while they made up only 30 percent of all state executions, the report found.

Matthew Baker Jr. in 2021, courtesy of FAIR

Matthew Baker Jr. Fights For His Life: Ahead Of His Death Penalty Trial

It’s safe to say tension is building around the upcoming death penalty trial for 26-year-old Matthew Baker Jr. who faces murder charges in a quadruple homicide from 2016. In contrast to Pye’s case, both pre-trial hearings and evidence discovered by Honeysuckle Magazine’s investigation suggests Baker had no part in the killings. 

Those arrested in the "Bonfire Killings" case. Left to right: Kayla Head, Jacob Williams, Brooke Knight, Jacob Kosky, and Matthew Baker. Screengrab from FOX5 Atlanta News.

What Happened October 27, 2016? The Henry County “Bonfire Killings” Case

Prosecutors allege then-19-year-old Baker met 22-year-old Jacob Kosky outside of a bonfire party at a home on Moccasin Gap Road in Jackson, Georgia with a pair of stolen firearms and helped Kosky kill Destiny Olinger, Matthew Hicks, Keith Gibson and Sophia Bullard. However, Baker denies supplying the firearms and having knowledge Kosky was going to kill the partygoers. 

Baker claims he rode with friends Kayla Head, Brooke Knight and Jacob Williams to the party with intentions of giving Kosky a ride home after Knight received a text message from Kosky saying he was in danger.

Baker told investigators that when his friends sent him from the car to go fetch Kosky, what he thought was going to be a fistfight was Kosky pulling out two firearms and opening fire inside the home. Baker told investigators Kosky then pulled a gun on him and threatened to kill him if he told the police what he witnessed.

Baker was initially charged as an accessory to a crime, but has since been reindicted on additional counts of felony murder and various gun charges. Baker’s mother, Angelia “Angie” Lanier, says private investigators disclosed that no fingerprints or gunshot residue tests match her son to the firearms. Prosecutors previously said no additional evidence from DNA warrant and search warrant connected Baker to the scene of the crime.

Matthew Baker in 2016, courtesy of Angie Lanier

Here Are 5 Things to Know About Matthew Baker Jr.’s Upcoming Trial

Hearsay Statements Admitted?

Senior Judge Arch McGarity allowed two statements from the State to be admitted as evidence under OCGA 24-8-807 which allows any statement having “circumstantial guarantee of trustworthiness” to be excluded from the hearsay rule. The statements in question were from Dalton Wyatt, a witness who survived the 2016 incident but died in 2023 in an unrelated car wreck. According to Wyatt’s statement to the police, he was hiding in a room in the back of the home when he saw Kosky and another unidentified male walking down the hallway with guns in hand. 

Wyatt’s grandmother, Dianne, and aunt, Alicia Greene, testified in the pre-trial hearing that on the way home from the police station, Wyatt gave his own chilling account of the night. Greene said he told them he passed out on the bed in the back room from drinking when he woke up to what he thought were fireworks. After realizing it was gunshots, she said Wyatt hid himself under the covers and peaked through a hole where he saw Kosky and another male making “finger gun motions” at one another, both armed with guns. Wyatt never said he saw them shoot anyone but also claimed that both males were shooting, according to Greene.

At some point, Wyatt told his family the two males entered the room where he was hiding.

“He said they walked around the bed,” Greene said. “He heard them laugh - two males laughing. When he saw they left out of the room, he said he moved under the bed, under the box spring. He was surprised they didn't find him. [He said] they seemed to be working together. I don’t know for sure what transpired but Dalton said they argued with Jacob earlier that night - Jacob and Keith [Gibson] - over a girl.”

Wyatt’s aunt also claimed Wyatt heard a female screaming, “Get the F out of here!” who he believed was Jacob’s sister, Mackenzie Jude Walton. She called 911 following the shooting but told dispatchers she was outside the home hiding when the incident happened. Wyatt was never arrested in connection to the incident, but was labeled a suspect on the 911 call record. Greene said only “recently” the district attorney’s office reached out to her about Wyatt’s statements. Baker says these accounts from Wyatt’s family are blatant lies. 

Conflict of Interest 

Judge McGarity denied a motion filed by Baker’s attorneys to move the case out of Georgia due to a conflict of interest involving the District Attorney’s Office. Brad Gardner, Koksy’s former public defender, is currently hired as Assistant District Attorney. It’s unclear who sought whom for the job; District Attorney Darius Pattillo testified that Gardner approached him for the job, while Gardner claimed Pattillo asked if he’d like to apply. From that point, Pattillo said the onboarding process including application review and interviewing was conducted by prosecutors Deborah Venuto and Sybil Price - the same prosecutors handling Baker’s case. 

Both Pattillo and Gardner claim any and all access to information regarding Baker’s case was sealed off from Gardner. Pattillo also said he instructed Garnder not to entertain conversations about Baker’s case with other prosecutors in the office.

However, Pattillo testified that it is up to his own discretion to explore a potential conflict of interest, which in this case, he decided there was no conflict. He said his office has no guidelines, policies or codes of conduct as it pertains to conflicts of interest. He also stated that he didn’t notify Baker’s attorneys of Gardner’s hiring because he “didn’t think it was relevant.” 

Matthew Baker and friend getting ready for their high school prom; courtesy of Angie Lanier

Motions Reveal Controversies 

Judge McGarity granted a motion to exclude rumors from eyewitness Makenzie Jude Walton and her brother, Jordan Kosky (older brother of Jacob Kosky) who allegedly said they “heard on the street” that Baker killed someone in retaliation for the sexual assault of his sister prior to the shooting. No court records indicate Baker was a murder suspect before the bonfire shooting. 

The State then filed a motion for driver Kayla Head and witness Brooke Knight to be protected from criminal liability based on their testimonies against Baker in trial. Jacob Williams, the fourth person in the vehicle the night of the shooting, has been completely severed from the case, Baker tells us. He claims the matter is related to a relationship between Williams’ family and Henry County Police Officer George Padgett - one of the responding officers who arrived at Baker’s home the morning of the shooting. Honeysuckle found that Jacob Williams is friends with Padgett’s son on Facebook and Padgett himself is friends with several of Williams’ family members on the social media site.

Speaking of acquaintances, Judge McGarity ruled that acquaintances of the victims or their families may be allowed to serve on the jury, arguing that an “acquaintance” doesn’t necessarily imply potential bias. 

In other miscellaneous matters, every motion so far demanding the death penalty be declared unconstitutional in the case has been denied by the judge. In response to another motion filed by the defense, prosecutors agreed to exclude any language of “gang” or “gang activity” and replace it with “street organization.” 

Damita Bishop, CEO and Founder of the nonprofit organization Fighting Against Institutionalized Railroading (F.A.I.R.) - who has been advocating for Mr. Baker since 2021 - says the word “gang” could easily make life in prison a default sentence for any crime, felony or misdemeanor. 

A “Negotiated” Plea of Life in Prison 

According to Baker, his attorneys have been aggressively trying to persuade him to sign a plea deal. The terms of the agreement are life in prison with or without the possibility of parole as well as the forfeiture of his right to an appeal. In both pathways, Baker’s options would then be to  file a habeas corpus in hopes of winning a petition to be let out of prison, or wait another 30 years until going in front of the parole board. Court witnesses tell us his public defenders threw a Hail Mary requesting to change his plea from guilty to not guilty by mental insanity. 

According to FindLaw, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity may more often than not result in a judge ordering a defendant in this case to be sent to a psychiatric facility. Capital Defender Shayla Galloway asked the judge for an additional six to seven months of preparation to interview over 70 additional witnesses. 

Judge McGarity declined this request, questioning what more preparation Baker’s counsel needs after seven years of waiting for trial.

In the meantime, Baker says his attorneys have continuously been hounding him to sign a plea instead of going to trial as he’s decided as of March 11. Baker expressed serious doubt in his attorneys, concerned he may be going into trial blind due to a lack of preparation and defense strategy. 

“I feel like they haven’t done a real, thorough investigation,” Baker said of his attorneys. “In the last year is the most we ever got anything done. Until it’s crunch time, then they buckle down on my case.” 

Jury Picking Begins…

A lengthy motion was filed from the defense objecting to a sudden change in jury selection resulting in the court ordering them to shorten their list of 116 voir dire questions to just 55. The motion alleges the judge showed favoritism to the prosecutors by not giving them as many hurdles during the questioning process.

Amongst other claims, the motion mainly argued jurors are being withheld from considering mitigating factors to differentiate between capital murder and other murders that are unintentional or in self-defense.

Amanda Howard, a Gwinnett County resident who has frequented Baker’s jury selection so far, tells Honeysuckle these mitigating factors included giving the jury vague details of the case which directly contradict the evidence. To Howard, Baker’s attorneys appeared to be priming the jury to assume Baker’s guilt. 

“So they would say, ‘The judge previously told you that there was another defendant also charged in this case and that the defendant's case has been resolved,’ Then they lead into the questions saying, ‘If in a case where all four victims were shot in the head by either both of the defendants or one of the defendants, would you automatically reject one of the three sentencing options?’” Howard recalled.

Howard’s observations also line up to another argument in the motion insisting the jury should be able to consider a defendant’s mental impairment or childhood trauma in their decision making - all the same issues they raised in their effort to change Baker’s plea.

Overall, Howard says it appears Baker’s counsel are spending more time asking the potential jurors what they would do if they found Mr. Baker guilty (with no supporting details) rather than asking questions to support their defense to ensure Baker is proven innocent. 

“Why do you feel like you’re just gonna lose?” Bishop asked of the attorneys. She previously criticized the trio for unprofessional behavior in the courtroom and having “meltdowns” in front of the judge over the questionnaire process. “They seem more focused on the sentencing than anything else. They don’t even say anything about the trial. Even when they ask the jurors questions, it’s all ‘when’ we get to sentencing. Not ‘if’ but ‘when’…

Baker says the only witness his defense attorneys placed under subpoena so far is Jacob Kosky. Any other witnesses they’ve interviewed are character witnesses for the sentencing, he says. The state previously said they have over 60 witnesses. 

Baker previously told Honeysuckle he planned on testifying on his own behalf. However, an email Baker’s mother sent to the judge casts doubt on this happening.

“This letter is of a concern on behalf of my son, Matthew Baker Jr.,” read the email. “I received a disturbing phone call from him the night of 4/30/2024. He told me his attorneys are pressuring him not to testify at his trial despite his wishes to do so and his legal right. I believe his attorneys should abide by their rules and allow him to do so instead of intimidating him into staying silent.”

Opening arguments were originally set to begin April 8 but delays in jury picking lead to a rescheduling to Monday May 6. Trial will then resume Tuesday when the State is expected to show evidence. 

How Can I Support Justice For Matthew Baker?

To support justice for Matthew Baker, like and share the Justice for Matthew Baker Facebook Page and tune in to the following podcasts to learn more about his case.

Mystery Mom Dracc

"Why Isn't Anyone Talking About Matthew Baker?"

United Streets

"Let My People Go Show: Justice For Matthew Baker Jr."

A.E.M. To H.E.L.P. LLC

"Matthew Baker Jr. sits in Henry County Jail wrongly charged for a crime he didn't commit!"

Wedlock: Chronicles of a Prison Wife

"Interview with Matthew Baker Jr's mom Angie Lanier"

All Things Relevant Media

"UNJUST: Matthew Baker Jr. Trial"

Stay tuned for further updates on Matthew Baker’s case and sign his petition at Change.org. To support a fair trial and investigation for Matthew Baker, you can send letters or make phone calls to the Henry County Justice Department:

Henry County Superior Court

Mailing: 1 Courthouse SQ, McDonough, GA 30253

Clerk of Superior Court - Sabriya Hill

1 Courthouse SQ, McDonough, GA 30253

Email: shill@co.henry.ga.us

District Attorney Darius Pattillo

1 Courthouse Square 2nd Floor, West Tower McDonough, GA 30253

Phone: (770) 288-6400

Email: da@co.henry.ga.us


Written By:

Kalyn Womack is a journalist and visual artist who currently works as a Staff Writer for The Root. Through her writing, she aims to challenge injustices and spotlight hidden figures of shadowed communities. Her work has also been published in Honeysuckle Magazine, Yahoo! News, NewsBreak, CityWatch LA, Jacksonville Free Press, and The Westside Gazette, among other outlets. She is a graduate of George Washington University.

@kt.acrylic (IG)


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Featured image: Matthew Baker Jr. in 2021, courtesy of FAIR