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Man convicted in 2 traffic deaths

A jury says he was speeding down 34th Street when he collided with a van, killing a woman and her unborn child.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2001


LARGO -- The mothers sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. Their eyes didn't meet during three days of trial. They hadn't spoken a word.

Theodore Baker III, 19, is the son to one. To the other mother, he is a reckless youth who stole a daughter's life with a speeding car.

But the women hugged and cried together Thursday as bailiffs led Baker to jail.

A jury deliberated about four hours Thursday before finding Baker guilty of two counts of vehicular homicide for causing the crash that killed pregnant Julie Filmon Walton, 27, and the baby she was three weeks from delivering.

Prosecutors say Baker was racing at speeds of up to 90 mph on 34th Street N in St. Petersburg late Nov. 12, 1999, when he hit a van in which Walton was a passenger.

Baker showed no emotion as the verdict was announced. Behind him, a half-dozen family members sat softly crying or with heads down.

When Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John Schaefer sentences him April 16, Baker faces 18 to 30 years in prison.

As Walton's mother, Carole Birchfield, stood to leave the courtroom, she found herself unexpectedly facing Baker's mother, Pam Holmes. They paused with uncertainty.

Then they hugged for a minute.

"I've been praying for you," Holmes said. "He's so young."

"They were both so young," Birchfield answered.

Baker's case is a rarity. Prosecutors charged him with two counts of vehicular homicide, one charge for Walton's death and another for the death of the unborn baby.

Walton, who was a telemarketer, and her fiance, Michael Pezzano, planned to name their baby Vincent Michael.

"All evidence is that this was a normal, well-developed child," said prosecutor Evan Brodsky. "The likelihood was that the baby would have lived if not for the crash."

Birchfield said after the verdict that she drew no joy from seeing Baker led away.

"They're young," she said. "Young people do dumb things. He didn't mean to kill my daughter. But justice needs to be done."

Brodsky and prosecutor Quinn Johnson say that Walton would not have been killed if Baker had obeyed the 40 mph speed limit on 34th Street.

Walton was sitting in the back seat of a van driven by a friend about 11 p.m. with her fiance sitting in the front seat.

Her friend, Deborah Marley, prepared to turn left from 34th Street onto 34th Avenue N. The couple were returning from a supermarket, where Walton bought some candy.

If Marley saw the two sets of headlights approaching, prosecutors said, there would have been no time to react.

Baker hit his brakes before the crash. But at the time of impact, his 1992 Buick was still traveling at least 60 mph, police said.

Walton's seat was ripped from the van, and she and her baby died soon thereafter. Marley and Pezzano were treated for minor injuries.

Baker, then 17, recovered from serious injuries.

The driver of the second car racing with Baker did not stop, and its driver, who may also have faced criminal charges, remains unidentified.

Baker's attorney, John Henninger, blamed the crash on Marley, saying the driver pulled into Baker's path and did not have the right of way.

Baker testified that he wasn't speeding and that another car collided with him before the crash. He said he lost consciousness, and he inadvertently pressed his foot on the accelerator.

By the time he regained consciousness and saw the van in his path, Baker said, it was too late.

Brodsky asked, "Does that make any sense?"

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