A jury acquitted Lawrence Baker of murder Friday, but declared him guilty on two weapons charges tied to the death of 24-year-old Najee Holmes in Elmira.
After about three hours of deliberation, the 12-member jury handed up its decision to Chemung County Judge Richard Rich. Before the jury’s decision was read, however, police presence in the courtroom more than doubled; At least 12 police officers wearing uniforms were on hand and several of plains-clothed officers were carefully watching the full courtroom.
Baker, a 25-year-old Elmira resident, faces a 5- to 15-year stay at state prison for the convictions. He’s slated to be sentenced 9 a.m. March 3 as a second-felony offender. He’d previously been convicted of a felony drug charge in 2013.
The verdict, issued around 3:40 p.m. Friday, was the jury’s apparent unanimous belief that reasonable doubt existed in the prosecution’s theory that Baker killed Holmes intentionally.
Upon the forewoman reading their finding on the first charge — the murder charge — Baker’s family and friends rejoiced while Holmes’ family voiced their outrage.
During the trial, Baker’s defense lawyer, Michael Spano, argued his client was acting in self-defense and the shooting was justified. Baker and Holmes got into a scuffle when Baker arrived to a birthday party at 372 Baty St. on Elmira’s Southside in the early morning of Feb. 13.
In the midst of that scuffle and while Holmes had a hold of Baker’s waist trying to knock Baker off his feet, Holmes allegedly stabbed Baker, according to testimony.
After feeling a sharp pain in his side, “I instantly grabbed the gun in my coat pocket and shot (Holmes),” Baker testified when he took the witness stand Thursday.
Holmes suffered a graze wound to his lower back and a gunshot wound to his upper right back. The shot to his upper back ultimately killed him after severely damaging his lung.
Baker then fled to 419 Mackey Place, where he was apprehended an hour or so later.
“Had there not been a stabbing, this would’ve been a no-brainer,” prosecuting attorney John Thweatt, of the Chemung County District Attorney’s Office, said. Going into the jury deliberation he was hopeful but was not surprised by the outcome.
“It’s a tough set of facts to deal with,” he said.
Thweatt voiced his disappointment with the verdict because he said Holmes’ family did not get the justice they fully sought.
Before the case was handed to the jury, Spano introduced a series of text messages as evidence.
The communications detailed portions of a conversation between Holmes and David Johnson, a man Baker had been hanging around with at the bar, and whom he followed in the Baty Street garage.
Holmes, who was shot at 1:44 a.m. on Feb. 13, 2016, had sent a text to Johnson at around 12:40 a.m. saying “DOA,” Spano told jurors. “DOA” was meant as an abbreviation for “dead on arrival.”
The text messages also showed Holmes had offered to pay Johnson to “knockout” Baker for a couple hundred dollars, Spano said. Following the verdict, Thweatt said the text messages were ambiguous.
In Thweatt’s closing arguments, he asked the jury to rely on the evidence from the scene, if they couldn’t rely on witness testimony.