RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A San Bernardino Superior Court jury convicted inmate James Ferris on Tuesday in the 1996 murder of counselor Ineasie M. Baker at the California Youth Authority prison in Chino.
Ferris, 29, faces a possible death sentence for stabbing and strangling Baker, a crime that some experts say led to a more severe and authoritarian regime in the youth prison system statewide.
The jury is expected to begin hearing arguments in the penalty phase of the case next month. The examination of the crime will not end there--with a federal civil rights lawsuit by Baker's family charging that Youth Authority employees were partially responsible for her death.
On Tuesday, however, Baker's friends, family and Youth Authority employees were focused on the verdict.
The spectators packed Judge Ingrid Uhler's small courtroom, filling every seat and lining the walls.
When the clerk read the guilty verdict, the audience burst into shouts of "Yes!" Many cried, including Baker's husband, Donald, and daughter, Tiffany. Ferris bowed his head and put both hands to his eyes, as Uhler ordered the spectators to be quiet.
The jury found Ferris guilty of first degree murder with two special circumstances--killing an on-duty peace officer and killing in an attempt to escape a correctional facility--that could lead to the death penalty.
Baker's family and friends said they were particularly pleased that the jury determined that she was killed while performing her official duties.
Deputy Public Defender David Negus had argued that Baker was actually not on duty at the time she was killed in the C & D cell block, because she had taken off her duty belt and personal safety alarm, as she prepared to go home.
"That [argument] really upset me," said Linda Lopez, a former Youth Authority employee who called Baker her best friend. "She was obviously killed in the performance of her job. If you can't take care of everything by the time your shift ends, you stay over. She went above and beyond."
Prison guards have followed the case closely, and two top officials of their union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., traveled from Sacramento to witness the verdict.
"This was very, very important to us," said Gwen Fife, one of the many guards in attendance. Other Baker supporters wore T-shirts that stated: "In the Line of Duty."
During the three-month trial, jurors heard disturbing details of how the killer assaulted Baker in the closet, cleaned up the bloody crime scene and carted the body to a dumpster--all without being detected in the state's highest security youth prison.
Ferris killed Baker to get her keys in a failed escape attempt, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos. Ferris was afraid about his imminent transfer to the adult prison system, where he was to be shipped as he reached his 25th birthday, Ramos said.
The prosecutor said he will tell jurors at the sentencing how Ferris earned a 25-years-to-life sentence previously for murder in Orange County, where he asphyxiated a middle-age nurse who had taken him into her home.
Defense attorney Negus declined to comment.
Before the trial, Negus had said he believed there was doubt over who had committed the crime because of the slipshod security practices at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility. His defense had promised to be a wide indictment of the Youth Authority prison.
But during the trial, Negus shifted strategy and focused on Ferris' involvement. He tried to persuade jurors that the inmate was only an accessory after the fact, coming into the mop closet to clean up after the real killer, whom he did not identify.
In their federal civil rights lawsuit, Donald and Tiffany Baker blame five of Ineasie Baker's co-workers for a "deliberate indifference" that they allege led to her death.
One of those accused in the suit, former Chino prison Supt. Henry Vanderweide, hurried from the courtroom after the verdict. He declined to comment.
Friends said Ineasie Baker had complained about poor security and a lack of staffing at the prison. Employees in a guard station apparently took no notice as Baker was attacked just a few feet away.
Baker was the fifth youth authority employee killed in the agency's half-century of existence. She was the first peace officer killed inside one of the youth prisons.