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Justice for Matthew Baker: Racial Bias Could Send an Innocent Man to Death Row

Racial bias could convict Matthew Baker, the only Black suspect in the McDonough, Georgia "Bonfire Killings" case. The advocacy nonprofit FAIR is campaigning to save his life.

Justice for Matthew Baker: Racial Bias Could Send an Innocent Man to Death Row

A 23-year old Black man may face the death penalty for the murder of four individuals from a 2016 quadruple homicide case in Henry County, Georgia. Matthew Baker Jr. and his co-defendant Jacob Kosky have been charged with up to 30 counts related to the crime. Kosky has confessed to the murders; however, Baker must stand trial as his fate is decided by his involvement or lack thereof in the incident.

His family argues that racial biases in the Georgia justice system play a role in the investigation and the lack of solid evidence qualifying Baker for Death Row. Damita Bishop, co-founder of Fighting Against Institutionalized Railroading (FAIR), a nonprofit that advocates for the release of people unjustly penalized by the criminal justice system, has been a leading force in addressing the potential unfair or unlawful sentencing of Baker. Bishop’s main concern is Baker’s race influencing the way the county decides whether he lives or dies.

What Happened in the “Bonfire Killings” Case?

On October 27, 2016, a bonfire party was hosted at the home of 20-year-old Destiny Olinger on Moccasin Gap Road in McDonough, Georgia. Baker arrived at the party with his friends Kayla Head (21), Brooke Knight (19) and Jacob Williams (18). Suspect Jacob Kosky (23) was present with his sister Mackenzie Walton. Baker was the only Black attendee.

Baker said he left the party with Head, Knight and Williams. Baker’s mother said he was home by 9:30 p.m. by her request. The four returned to the party around 1:45 a.m., according to Baker's younger sister Jada who was home at the time.

It is not clear what happened from the events that followed when Baker returned to the house. Due to the ongoing investigation, police records of the event cannot be released. Local Georgia and Henry County news stories have interpreted the police report on the night differently.

One report said the police stated that Kosky contacted Baker directly to return to the house and handed him a gun to open fire. Baker told Honeysuckle he did not hold a gun. No evidence has been presented to indicate fingerprints or gunpowder residue connecting Baker to a firearm. Baker also said he did not have his own cellular device to be contacted directly. His mother, Angie Lanier, said she communicated with him through friends Kayla Head and Brooke Knight.

Another report suggested Baker supplied Kosky with the guns when he returned to the house. Kosky confessed to finding the guns himself atop the refrigerator inside the house.

Yet another report stated both Kosky and Baker left the party and returned with guns to open fire inside the house. Detective David LeCroy testified that Kosky told Baker he needed his help attacking the people inside. “I don’t know if he thought I was kidding or not but I told him everybody in the house was gonna get it…I’ll do all the work, I just need you here,” said Kosky to LeCroy.

Both Baker and Kosky told Honeysuckle they were not friends and didn’t know each other well. Kosky also admitted in court that Baker had no idea of his plans to attack the victims.

In conversation with Honeysuckle, Kosky said that he had asked Brooke Knight to send Baker into the house because he was afraid he and his sister were in danger: “I called Brooke Knight to come pick me up and told her to park down the street because some people at the party didn’t like her and I told her to tell Baker to come down the road to get me when they arrived. When Baker came, I told him I had to get my sister because she was in danger. I never told Matthew I was going to kill anyone…I just snapped.”

Party attendees Matthew Hicks (18), Keith Gibson (29) and Sophia Bullard (20) were found dead with gunshot wounds to the head in the dining room. Destiny Olinger was found in the kitchen with two gunshot wounds to the head. She died a few days later in the hospital.

Mackenzie Walton, Kosky’s sister, survived the incident and reportedly called 911 around 2 a.m. There is no report of what happened between the time of the killings and the time of the phone call. Requests for the recording of the phone call have not been responded to yet.

Kosky had already left in a car with Baker, Head, Knight and Williams. No reports state if the other three are aware of the shooting. The police report states that Kosky was dropped off at the Newton County line. Baker and the other three then returned to Baker’s house.

Reports say Baker was arrested the following morning after a felony traffic stop. However, Baker’s mother confirmed he was arrested after the police came to her house initially looking for Kosky. The same morning, Kosky reportedly turned himself in and confessed to all four murders.

No hard evidence has been brought to light to connect Baker to the murders.

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.

The Aftermath

Kosky was indicted on four counts of malice murder, eight counts of felony murder, four counts of aggravated assault, one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and one count of theft. The state also served the death penalty. Kosky’s sentencing took place in 2019. He pled guilty but mentally ill, allowing him to negotiate out of the death penalty and serve four consecutive life sentences instead. In Kosky’s plea deal, he requested the release of Baker as he argued he had nothing to do with the incident.

Since then, Kosky has spent the past five years in prison pleading for Baker's release. “I wrote countless letters to the judges in our case, public defenders, capital defenders, Fox 5 News, clerk of the court and the D.A. stating Matthew was not guilty and was in fact a victim in my case. I was under the impression when I took my plea that Baker was going to be set free,” he told Honeysuckle.

Baker was initially charged with four counts of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, four counts of aggravated assault and one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Baker has been reindicted this month with additional felony murder counts, two first degree burglary charges, four counts of criminal attempt to commit a felony and four counts of possession of a firearm during commission of a felony totaling to 30 counts.

Baker’s next hearing date is set for July 28th. His attorneys have three subpoenaed witnesses to present and Baker continues to refuse the guilty plea offered by District Attorney Darius Pattillo. During his hearing on Monday June 28, he state said they filed several motions including one to suppress Baker’s DNA test from being presented as evidence, search warrants, arrest warrants and Baker’s statement.

Kayla Head, Jacob Williams and Brooke Knight were also arrested. However, only Head and Knight were charged with making a false statement. Their cases are still open.

Concerns of Racial Bias

Skepticism around racial bias in Baker’s case comes not only from the history of racial discrimination in Georgia’s criminal justice system, but also because Baker was the only Black suspect and was still taken in and charged after Kosky confessed to the crime.

“What the state is trying to get at is that I’m an accomplice, that I held a gun and that I killed someone. That’s not the case. I did not have a gun. They’re trying to say I did something to get these charges,” Baker told Honeysuckle.

Baker’s attorneys, Kimberly Staten-Hayes, Shayla Galloway and Christina Rudy, argue the push for the death penalty violates Baker’s freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. They also argue that Georgia has no procedure for offering the death penalty. Therefore, Baker could be exposed to discrimination or bias and given the death penalty any time he goes to board.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) found people of color accounted for a “disproportionate 43% of total executions since 1976.” They also found the death penalty violates the non-discrimination requirement found in international human rights law. If put on Death Row, Baker could potentially wait decades for execution in inhumane conditions, considered internationally as torturous.

The state of Georgia has executed 76 people since 1976 according to the Marshall Project. Since 2011, Georgia executed three Black men whose cases had strong evidence to prove their innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state’s current Death Row population is 43 percent Black. The only Henry County prisoner on Death Row currently is a Black man.

Damita Bishop, co-founder of FAIR, was contacted by Baker’s mother for help to prove her son’s innocence. Bishop’s work revolves around researching laws and fine combing the details of cases for individuals who are at risk of receiving wrongful sentences, guilty or innocent. These individuals consist mainly Black and brown people.

FAIR also has a system of prison paralegals who read over cases to find out if a person is innocent or not. If innocent, Bishop advocates for that person’s release, if guilty, she advocates for a proper sentence. FAIR has been contacted for assistance on 132 cases from 12 states.

“I don’t like to say anyone is innocent unless I’ve seen the discovery,” Bishop said. “We’re having a very difficult time getting that because it’s an ongoing discovery.”

Bishop said she was moved by Kosky’s urgency to free Baker in the recordings of his court hearings. She recently hosted a podcast with Lanier and dialed in Baker to let him proclaim his innocence.

Bishop said in response to the podcast, she received multiple death threats and violent messages from Henry County residents who opposed her interaction with Baker. One message, Bishop told Honeysuckle, was from someone who connected her with Kosky via JPay.

“I have nothing to lose or gain from Baker getting released from prison. I just want to do the right thing,” said Kosky to Bishop via JPay email. Kosky also confessed again to being responsible for the events on October 27, 2016 and specifically how Baker wasn’t involved.

In another message to Bishop, Kosky additionally stated that the report did not trace any fingerprints on the gun or gunpowder on Baker. Bishop was moved by Kosky’s personal confession and considered moving forward to help prove that Baker might be innocent.

Shawanna Vaughn, founder of Silent Cry Inc., a nonprofit that provides resources to families coping with prison and poverty-related trauma, also showed concern for how the prosecution was being carried out. Bishop contacted Vaughn to review Baker’s case. Vaughn believes the reindictment was a strategy to jeopardize Baker’s case because he was being intimidated into taking a guilty plea which he refused.

“I don’t want to see another African American in prison while wrongfully convicted,” Vaughn said. “We have to learn to get this right. We have to learn better prosecutorial practices and we have to learn to dig. It’s unacceptable that they are not listening to the other party in the case simply because you want him to be mentally ill and not heard. When the guilty person is telling you they’re guilty and yet you want two people to pay for one crime that one person did not commit, that’s an atrocity and that’s a crime against humanity.”

Both Bishop and Vaughn have reached out to media and social justice organizations to spread the word about the case. Vaughn will be traveling to Georgia from New York to witness Baker’s next hearing on July 28th. They believe it is important to stand by the family in solidarity.

Matthew Baker’s Support

Angie Lanier has been working restlessly to spread the word about the case. “From day one I knew my son was innocent; when you carry something in your belly, a true mother has a bond with her children, knows her children and what they're capable of doing, some exceptions at times,” Lanier told Honeysuckle.

“I have done nothing but pray that the truth comes out. Even though these people hate me and hate my son, I still pray for them. I pray that God will put some rest upon their hearts to get past the bitterness and the anger. No parent should have to bury their child or have to view their child's body with bullet holes in their head. I cannot imagine how I would feel.”

Lanier gathered a group of supporters who know Baker personally and shared their impressions of his character. Lanier said they were taken aback by the charges brought against her son.

One of the group, family friend Kim Hicks, said, “I’ve known Matthew since he was 6. My children and Angie’s children have grown up together so they’re like my family. Matthew is a great young man and anyone that came into contact with him would tell you the same. He loved to help others and always tried to give advice to help out his siblings. Even in his current situation he stays positive and I honestly admire his look on life. At a time when we would give up, he stays prayed up.”

Close friend Clinetta B’Ham said, “I have known Matthew for about 10 years. He is a respectful young man and always open to help and assist with whatever is asked or needed. He is a very bright individual and has a heart of gold… Never a moment I have been around this young man that he didn’t put a smile on my face.”

The group used to send holiday cards and letters of encouragement when Baker was allowed to receive mail. Lanier now provides updates on Baker’s wellbeing and how the case is moving forward.

“I'm putting my life on the line for this,” Lanier said. “The more I speak out, the more feathers I ruffle, the more people will try to come after me. I'm gonna fight until I have no more breaths in my body because I know he's innocent.”

“He told me if he has to die for what’s right, so be it.”

To support a fair trial and investigation for Matthew Baker, you can send letters or make phone calls to the Henry County Justice Department.

To contact District Attorney Darius Pattillo

Mailing: 2nd Floor, West Tower, McDonough, GA 30253

Phone: (770) 288-6400

To contact the Clerk of Superior Court Sabriya H. Hill

Phone: 770-288-8131

Mailing: 44 John Frank Ward Blvd McDonough, GA 30253

Email: bharrison@co.henry.ga.us

For more information on the campaign to support Matthew's fair trial, visit the Fighting Against Institutionalized Railroading page on Facebook.

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Featured photo: Matthew Baker courtesy of FAIR