WEST CHESTER >> The twists and turns of Barry Robert Baker Jr.’s anticipated guilty plea proceeding ended Wednesday when the“sucker-punch” defendant left a Common Pleas courtroom with the prospect of a trial hanging over his head, at which a video recording of him throwing the infamous punch at a disabled man will surely be played.
Baker had initially rejected the version of events laid out by the prosecution in the case, and later decide to accept it, only to then hear the judge overseeing the case raise doubts about whether the plea could go forward.
“He’s willing to accept (the facts) now,” said Judge William P. Mahon. But what about later, when Baker has more time to stew over his treatment? Mahon said that he would schedule a trial for Monday at which Baker — should he decide to — can challenge the prosecution — most notably over the question of whether the two men had previous contact the night of the punch.
Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Morgan, who is prosecuting Baker, had told Mahon that what happened between Baker and victim Michael Patrick Ryan was completely unprovoked; that the two men had no prior contact; and that Ryan had said nothing to Baker before being assaulted. To the contrary, Baker contended in an interview with the Daily Local News that the two had come in contact at a West Chester bar before the incident with the punch, and that Ryan had begun “running his mouth.” He threw the punch because he had grown angry with Ryan’s attitude, he suggested.
“Absolutely not,” Baker responded Wednesday morning when Mahon asked him if he agreed with the facts of the case as Morgan described them. After hearing that, Mahon rejected the proposed plea and set Monday as a tentative start to a trial on the assault charge.
But after thinking things over for an hour or so and listening to advice from his attorney, Thomas Purl III of Downingtown, Baker returned to Mahon’s courtroom in the early afternoon with the intention of agreeing with Morgan’s account. For Morgan, however, that would not be enough, she told the judge. Baker would also have to agree that his version of events was, in fact, a fabrication. She said that without that stipulation, she would take the matter to trial.
Had things gone as planned Baker, 29, of Georgetown, Delaware, and formerly of East Fallowfied, whose case caused an internet firestorm after authorities released a video of the violent encounter, was to have entered guilty pleas to one count of simple assault and one of flight to avoid apprehension — a charge stemming from his actions following the media backlash over the so-called sucker punch. He would have been sentenced at a later date.
Each of the charges — both second-degree misdemeanors — carry with them maximum penalties of one to two years in state prison. It will be up to Mahon to decide what the sentence will be, and also to sentence Baker on an outstanding probation case that is still active for a minor theft charge.
Ryan, 22, who has cerebral palsy, was present for the proceedings. He declined to comment on the matter.
Baker’s plea proceeding contained a bit of uncertainty from the beginning, in keeping with previous court appearances in which he changed his mind more than once about how to proceed. When addressing the matter before Mahon at the start of his daily list of cases, Morgan called it a “possible open guilty plea,” leading Mahon to question its status — since Purl had assured him last week that the plea was certain.
“We will see what Mr. Purl says when he comes (back from speaking with his client,” Morgan said.
When Purl arrived, he showed Morgan a signed plea document and spoke briefly with reporters about what to expect from his client. Baker wanted to have three requests honored — that Mahon sentence him on the probation case immediately, that property taken when he was arrested — including money orders — be returned; and that he be allowed to address Ryan and apologize.
Purl said that he anticipated that Mahon would eventually sentence Baker to a term in state prison, but that he would argue otherwise when the time came. “My job is to try to keep him in (Chester County Prison),” the attorney said. Baker had complained that he is being treated harshly in the prison because of an altercation with corrections officers that left him with a separated shoulder.
When Baker arrived in the courtroom, he was dressed in a white tailored shirt, black trousers, sneakers, and a sling for his left arm. His beard and hair had been recently trimmed.
As Mahon went through the guilty plea colloquy in which he asked whether Baker understood the rights that he was giving up by entering the plea, Baker said that he did and understood that the plea would prove an automatic violation of his 2008 conviction for theft from a motor vehicle, which was about to expire when he was arrested in May.
He wavered briefly when Mahon asked whether he had been threatened or pressure into pleading guilty instead of going to trial. “No, not really,” Baker said. “It was either an open plea or a deal, so I took the open plea.” Told that such a decision was a choice and not due to any threat, Baker said he wanted to proceed. “I’m pleading guilty,” he told the judge.
Then Mahon asked Morgan to recite the facts of the case.
She said that at 2:15 a.m. on May 10, the victim, Ryan, had left work at his family’s restaurant, Ryan’s Pub, and had driven to the 7-11 store in the 200 block of South High Street. Baker was standing outside with another man when Ryan exited his car and went into the store. As he did, Baker mocked the way he moved and walked because of his disability.
Morgan said that up until that point, Ryan had never met or encountered Baker. When he came out of the store and walked to his vehicle, Baker again made fun of the way he moved, and Ryan turned to face him while standing by the driver’s side of his truck. But before he could say anything, Morgan stated, Baker punched him in the face with a closed fist. “He said noting to the defendant,” she told Mahon.
She said that Ryan was injured but not seriously by the punch. The event was captured on video, which was released to the public after Baker’s arrest a few days later.
It was at that point in the proceeding that Mahon asked if the account given by Morgan was accurate, and Baker said flatly that it was not.
In the interview that Baker gave to the Daily Local News on Sept. 2, he said that he had a brief confrontation with Ryan at Barnaby’s of West Chester, a bar about a block away from the 7-11, over Ryan’s behavior with a female patron. He said that Ryan sneered at him, calling him “Dr. Phil,” for his alleged gentility toward the woman, who Baker did not identify.
Baker said then the two met again outside the 7-11, and that again Ryan taunted him.
“He was running his mouth again, and said, ‘Oh, look, it’s Dr. Phil again,’“ Baker said in the interview. “I imitated how he walked, which was wrong of course.” Baker stood by a trash can and opened the pack of cigarettes he had bought when the victim exited the store, again taunting him, he stated.
“Does he not realize I was ready to let my anger get the best of me?” Baker recalled thinking. The man said something rude again, Baker stated, along the lines of “You didn’t get the door.” “That’s when I let my anger get the best of me,” Baker said. He said he reached back and slapped the man in the face, holding his pack of cigarettes. “They said there was blood. There was no blood,” he said.
“Everybody heard what he said,” Baker claims, speaking of the people with him outside the store, who looked on nonchalantly as the assault took place.
But why mock the man for his disability, said to be cerebral palsy, he was asked. “Alcohol,” he said, suggesting he was intoxicated at the time. “It doesn’t justify it. My actions were wrong. If he ever came to court, I would apologize.”
When Baker disagreed with Morgan, Mahon handed back the plea document and discussed with Morgan and Purl when a trial on the assault charge could be convened. They agreed to try for Monday, after Purl checked with Barnaby’s to see if any video surveillance of the alleged encounter between Baker and Ryan existed. But a few moments later, Purl let Morgan know that Baker was willing to agree with her.
When the case reconvened, this time with District Attorney Tom Hogan now looking on, however, Mahon asked the status of the Barnaby’s surveillance tapes. Purl said he had not checked with the bar to see if they existed. Mahon raised the issue of whether Baker could realistically go ahead with the plea without knowing if his story was confirmed by evidence that could be presented at trial.
Purl said that at trial, Baker could make his case. “He can testify as to what he said happened that night, and the court can make a decision,” he told Mahon.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.