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Matt Baker murder case inspires suicide autopsy bill

by Mark Wiggins

WACO - Matt Baker nearly got away with the crime.

Now locked in a prison cell for his wife's murder -- at first ruled a suicide -- many are asking whether or not shortcomings in the legal system may have nearly let him get away with killing Kari Baker.

Tom Purdy and his wife Jan were at the trial, and believe the case exposed a critical flaw in the way alleged suicides are handled.  

"If you had a loved one that you know did not commit suicide and a person untrained ruled, what would be your emotions?" asks Purdy.

Passionate advocates of the bill also known as "Kari's Law," the Purdys have written dozens of legislators and elected officials, asking for their support of HB 3546, a measure which would require autopsies to be performed when the person "committed suicide or the circumstances of the death indicate that the death may have been caused by suicide."

It's up to local Justices of the Peace, often with the advice of law enforcement, to make the final ruling whether or not a death is considered a suicide.  Purdy and others are concerned that many Justices of the Peace have little experience with forensics or criminal investigation, and may be susceptible to jumping to simple -- and wrong -- conclusions.

The bill's author, State Representative Charles "Doc" Anderson, says requiring autopsies in cases where the death is believed to be a suicide would help eliminate the chance of error.

"It would actually help the JPs in that regard," says Anderson.  "They wouldn't have to worry about those forensics issues and it would be, everyone would kind of know where they stand and it'd be more definite."

Such legislation wouldn't be the first of its kind.  In fact many states, like Oklahoma and Georgia, have already passed similar bills.

But one of the chief obstacles such a bill would face would be cost.

"People don't do autopsies for free," points out McLennan County District Attorney Able Reyna.

At around $2,000 per autopsy, Anderson estimates the bill would cost McLennan County about $25,000.  In a tight budget session, the prospect of laying another burden on county governments may make some legislators shy away from the bill.

"We wish there was money that we could send from the state to kind of help make up the difference, but it's just one of those situations," says Anderson, "And that may very well affect the success of the bill."

Other concerns have been raised by the Texas Suicide Prevention Council, who fear that an autopsy might be an added indignity to grieving families.

The bill has enjoyed large support by a number of state justice organizations, including the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and the Justice Court Judges Association of Texas.

Despite the unlucky financial timing, Purdy believes it's worth the money if the bill can keep a murderer from getting away with the perfect crime.

"It is a burden," says Purdy, "But I'm sure any county official that cares about human life and cares about apprehending those that commit murder... If they know that their own child or their own kinfolk go through this, I cannot believe the humanity in them wouldn't come out and say, 'Let's spend it.  It's worth it.'"

Linda Dulin, mother of Kari Baker, says if there is any good that can come of her tragedy, passing such a bill may just be it. 

Family members voiced disbelief early on that Kari could have committed suicide, and were ultimately vindicated when the cause of death was changed by Justice of the Peace Billy Martin.  Dulin believes that requiring autopsies in such cases would give family members peace in knowing definitively how their loved ones died.

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