Lehigh Valley

Northampton County jury hearing arguments in death penalty case

Dekota Baptiste convicted of murder

EASTON, Pa. - A defense witness for Dekota Baptiste painted a picture for jurors of a man who struggled with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder and experience trauma as a child that eventually developed into paranoia, low self-esteem and a volatile personality.

But prosecutors argue Baptiste, by his own account, had a pretty good childhood and lied to the psychologist who interviewed him before his murder trial, lied to police the night he was arrested and tole the jury yet a different account of what happened.

Arguments began Monday morning into whether Baptiste will be sentenced to death or serve life in prison without the possibilty of parole for the death of Terrance Ferguson. On Friday, a Northampton County jury convicted Baptiste in the shooting death of the 36-year-old Ferguson in February 2017.

The defense didn’t dispute that Baptiste shot into Ferguson’s car outside a Palmer Township AutoZone. They argued that the now 26-year-old acted in self-defense, firing at the car when Ferguson allegedly tried to run him down after the two men spoke in the parking lot.

The defense presented testimony from a crash reconstruction expert. He testified that damage to the two men’s cars and fluid trails from the damaged oil pan on Baptiste’s car supported Baptiste’s claim that Ferguson drove back and forth in a parking spot, hitting cars and trying to run down Baptiste.

Prosecutors countered that the two men had a disagreement over Ferguson’s front seat passenger, Thressa Duarte. Authorities had maintained that Baptiste and Duarte had a previous relationship, a claim that he denied during the trial.

The prosecution argued that Baptiste spoke to Ferguson through the driver’s side window the night of the shooting before moving to the other side of the car and firing six shots, hitting Ferguson four times. The damage to the vehicles, they argued, happened as Ferguson tried to get away.

Along with the homicide charge, the jury found Baptiste guilty of attempted homicide, two counts of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, receiving stolen property, weapons possession, illegal possession of a weapon, carrying a firearm without a license and fleeing and eluding.

In his opening statement Monday, Assistant District Attorney Abe Kassis said the prosecution was seeking the death penalty, in part, because of the danger Baptiste posed to others as he fired six shots at Ferguson’s car.

It’s a miracle that Duarte, who was sitting in the passenger seat, wasn’t injured or killed, and anyone randomly walking out of the store could have been injured, Kassis said.

But defense attorney Brian Monahan told the jury that deciding life or death isn’t as simple as applying a formula of aggravating circumstances created by the state legislature. He reminded the jury that Baptiste will never again walk the streets, having been convicted of first-degree murder.

Monahan told jurors that they’d hear about the life of a death row prisoner that includes near isolation, one hour a day outside the cell and your food slid under the door through a slot.

“The living environment for death penalty inmates, we submit to you, is inhuman,” he said,

The prosecution called only two family members to testify during its portion of the penalty phase, Ferguson’s cousin and aunt. Iris Hinton, Ferguson’s cousin described the affect his death has had on the family, particularly his mother.

She described him as very protective of his family and a good person.

During a brief cross-examination, Monahan noted that Hinton called her cousin peaceful and loving, prompting him to ask whether she knew that he’d spent time in prison. Hinton said she did, but that she didn’t know for how long or for what charges.

Clinical psychologist Frank Dattilio testified for the defense that Baptiste had learning disabilities that were not caught until he moved to Easton, when he was about 10 years old. When his family moved to Easton, Baptiste’s brother was shot and on their front porch and his parents began experiencing problems with their marriage, he said.

Dattilio told the jury that he started developing issues when he went to high school.

“This is where things started to deteriorate, in my opinion,” he said.

Baptiste, who was tested with below average intelligence, struggled with his grades and eventually gave up because he was becoming so frustrated with his learning disabilities, Dattilio said. He was eventually charged as a juvenile with assault and witness intimidation.

Dattilio said he found Baptiste highly volatile and easy to provoke, paranoid, edgy and inpatient with poor impulse control. Seeing few options after failing out of community college, Baptiste eventually turned to drug dealing, which only served to exacerbate his feelings of suspicion, he said.

Dattilio told the jury that Baptiste “fell through the cracks” and would have benefited from proper treatment as a juvenile.

On cross-examination, Kassis noted that Dattilio’s report showed Baptiste recalled his early childhood as “pretty good” and that he liked the move to Easton. He was getting average grades, played basketball and had a girlfriend, when he told a classmate, “I’m going to pop you and your family” after he was arrested, Kassis said.

Baptiste told Dattilio that he grabbed a gun of Ferguson’s lap the night of the shooting but testified last week that he was carrying the gun, Kassis told the court. He told Dattilio that he stopped at AutoZone the night of the shooting because he had car problems but testified he followed Ferguson that night to make peace, Kassis said.

On redirect, Monahan questioned what might account for the differences between what Baptiste told police, Dattalio and the jury.

“He lies, we know that,” Dattalio said.

He added that Baptiste’s paranoia likely skews his recounting of events under emotionally heightened circumstances.

“He’s not real bright, so it needs to be considered,” he said.

Before Monday's penalty phase began, the defense informed the judge that Baptiste over the weekend declined an offer from prosecutors to waive his appellate rights in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. The judge confirmed Baptiste's decision, noting that the offer was off the table once the proceedings began.


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