Gilbert Baker Must Face Jury, Federal Judge Rules

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Former State Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway will “most definitely” be going to trial, his lawyer says, but he will be tried by a jury rather than by a federal judge alone.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. on Wednesday denied Baker’s motion to waive his right to a jury trial in favor of letting Marshall decide his guilt in what is known as a bench trial.

Baker was indicted 18 months ago for his alleged role in a bribery scheme that sent former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio to federal prison. 

Maggio pleaded guilty in 2015 to reducing a jury verdict against a nursing home owned by one of Baker’s lobbying clients in exchange for campaign contributions. Baker is charged with conspiracy, bribery and seven counts of wire fraud. 

Baker’s attorneys, J. Blake Hendrix and Annie Depper of the Fuqua Campbell firm in Little Rock, requested a bench trial over the objection of federal prosecutors. In a motion filed in February, they argued that the accusations against Baker involved a complex mixture of state campaign finance laws and judicial election laws and regulations that would be more efficiently heard by a judge.

The motion was something of a hail Mary since, as the motion acknowledged, “only a few courts have ruled in favor of a bench trial over the government objection.” And Marshall won’t be joining the exclusive club.

“This case is not so complex that a properly instructed jury would be unable to apply the applicable law to the fact,” the judge wrote in his order denying the motion. And, he wrote, “Baker may be right that a bench trial would be more efficient or at least more convenient. Neither consideration, though, is determinative.”

Hendrix accepted Marshall’s decision with grace. “We understand the judge’s opinion. Thoughtful, well-reasoned as always,” he said. 

But not getting the bench trial does not change Baker’s plan to make the government prove its case. “We’re most definitely going to trial,” Hendrix said.

Baker’s trial is currently set to begin Feb. 22. 

Maggio, now 59, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and is currently incarcerated at the high-security Big Sandy federal penitentiary in Kentucky, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. He is scheduled for release in January 2026.

In the guilty plea that he later tried, unsuccessfully, to withdraw, Maggio admitted that he reduced a civil court jury verdict against the Greenbrier Nursing & Rehabilitation Center from $5.2 million to $1 million after its owner, Michael Morton of Fort Smith, donated $24,000 to Maggio’s campaign for state Court of Appeals.

Morton, a frequent donor to political campaigns, has not been charged with any crime.