NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A prosecutor and defense attorney agreed Monday that jurors won't have any doubt that the man charged with killing a Tennessee sheriff’s deputy in 2018 did in fact fatally shoot him and set fire to his patrol car and his body inside of it.
The only question jurors may have in the case against Steven Wiggins over the killing of Dickson County Sheriff's Sgt. Daniel Baker, the defense argued during opening statements, is whether it was premeditated.
Wiggins faces charges that include premeditated first-degree murder, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the grisly slaying that set off a two-day manhunt. Wiggins also faces federal charges in the 32-year-old officer's death.
District Attorney Ray Crouch opened the trial by sharing Baker's last words: “Shots fired. Officer down.”
“This crime is on camera. The defendant has confessed,” Crouch said. “There’s scientific testing, fingerprints, DNA, ballistic testings, all to confirm and reconfirm that the defendant committed these crimes.”
Wiggins' attorney, Luke Austin Evans, said he doesn't plan to call witnesses at this phase in the case. He promised to conduct the trial in a way that “maintains dignity to Sgt. Baker's memory.” The one question jurors may have, he said, is whether Wiggins used reflection and judgment during the killing.
“It wasn’t until I was able to get to learn more about Steven, his life history, and his life course, that I was even able to begin to fathom how something like this could happen,” Evans said.
Monday also opened witness testimony in the trial, starting with Baker's widow, Lisa.
Baker was responding to a call about a suspicious car in 2018 when he discovered it was stolen, authorities have said. Erika Castro-Miles, who is also charged in Baker's death, was in the car when Wiggins shot Baker, dragged the deputy’s body into the police cruiser and drove it to a rural area, where he set it on fire, court documents state.
A backpack he said he fled with was found nearby with two guns inside, including Baker’s backup weapon, court documents state.
Wiggins had been at large after being charged the day before for assaulting Castro-Miles and stealing that car from her, according to a local police report. Castro-Miles told police Wiggins had been “doing meth all night and smoking marijuana,” the report says.
Baker had determined the car was stolen and ordered the two out of the car, but Wiggins claimed his door wouldn’t open and Baker ordered Wiggins to leave from the passenger side, prosecutors said.
Baker’s body camera recorded some of what happened next: While he walked around the rear of the car to the passenger side, Wiggins fired a pistol about five times at Baker, hitting him at least once. Baker tried to take cover, but collapsed, prosecutors said.
Wiggins then fired five more times, the last three at short range, prosecutors said.
After firing those shots, Wiggins went to where Baker was lying and thought he was dead, but “didn’t want the man (Baker) to suffer,” so he shot Baker in the head multiple times: “like a dog, you know, man, its suffering. You make sure,” Wiggins told investigators in court documents.
Wiggins answered a radio dispatch and a call from another deputy on Baker’s cellphone, pretending to be Baker, the state indictment says.
Then he dragged the deputy’s body into the rear seat of the patrol car and drove it 3 or 4 miles (4.8 or 6.4 kilometers) to a field, court filings say. He told investigators he was thinking about the TV show CSI and worried about forensic evidence and fingerprints, so he lit paperwork on fire in the front and back seats and fled, court documents show.
The evidence, however, wasn’t destroyed. Baker was found with two gunshot wounds to his torso, one to his hand and three to the left side of his head. A preliminary autopsy showed the right side of his uniform was charred and his skin blackened.
The case spurred passage in 2019 of the Sgt. Daniel Baker Act, a state law that removed an intermediate court from reviewing Tennessee death penalty cases.
The trial in Dickson County, about 41 miles west of Nashville, has drawn its jury from about 220 miles to the east in Knox County.
Jonathan Mattise, The Associated Press