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Central Standard

Though Crime And Conflict Are Constants, Jackson County Prosecutor Says Her Job Is A 'Privilege'

Paul Andrews
Jean Peters Baker is the second woman to serve as Jackson County Prosecutor.

On Friday, when Jerry Bausby got two life sentences for the sexual assault and murder of his 18-year-old daughter, it was the culmination of three years of work for Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

Daizsa Bausby was a star student at the now-closed Southwest High School. She was a rule-follower and a go-getter with big dreams. But just a couple of months before her graduation, her body was found in a Kansas City motel room, dressed as though by someone else, according to examiners, who also concluded that she'd been sodomized and suffocated.

"The facts of that case were so horrible that I actually used my 16-year-old son as a sounding board for how to give an opening statement," Baker told KCUR on the day before Jerry Bausby's sentencing. "It was his choice to come and see the trial," she said of her son. "It was an important case for him to see because his life is so different from Daizsa's."

Baker told the jury how many minutes it takes to die of suffocation, making the case that Daisza had fought for her life. She held up photographs of Daizsa's body, her voice shaking as she said, "This is not consent."

Baker told KCUR that her husband often calls their dining room "unfit for public consumption" because of the case files splayed out on the table when she's been working from home. But, she said, "it still remains a real privilege to be able to represent the voice of Daizsa when her own voice was silenced."

The sentence Baker fought so hard for capped a week of other explosive (if less violent) news involving her office.

On Wednesday, a new audit exposed egregious misuse of millions of dollars in funds set aside to fight drugs and drug-related violence in a city desperate for solutions to violent crime. Baker had commissioned the audit after she took over the agency in 2018.

Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker (center) and Manheim neighborhood president Diane Charity (right) in May 2018, delivering a warning letter to a home riddled with bullets. In September 2018, Baker took over the violence prevention group COMBAT.

County Executive Frank White blasted the report, claiming it contained "factual inaccuracies." By the end of the week, he had requested a retraction.

"My staff has worked diligently to identify and communicate dozens of obvious errors within the report," he wrote in a letter to the auditing firm BKD, suggesting that the supposed mishandling of the audit is bad enough to put the firm's reputation at stake.

In her wide-ranging interview with KCUR, Baker noted that she is accustomed to conflict.

She's the chair of the Democratic Party in Missouri, a state where Republicans currently hold a government trifecta: the governor is a Republican, and the Republican party holds majorities in the Senate and the House.

But she cut her teeth serving as a Missouri State Representative for the 39th District in 2011, and then too, she worked for the minority party. 

"When I was in Jefferson City, and it still remains true today, Democrats were not allowed to have bills that were debated on," she recalled, explaining that when she started making a point, her microphone would go dead. This memory was the only thing that seemed to get her riled up. "What are you, scared?" she said, referring rhetorically to the party in power. "How ridiculous that we can't have a debate. Let's not fear debate."

But rather than longing for unity, Baker extolled the virtues of division.

"Divided government is the best government," she said. "When you have too much of a singular party running anything, you will not have great representation. That's the truth because good government comes from compromise, and compromise only comes when people are forced to do it."

In fact, Baker's life story is one of contrasts. The urban prosecutor was raised in a rural part of the state, where she was educated in a four-room school house. And though she now presents evidence in murder trials, she initially found the presence of police helicopters jarring when she moved to Kansas City. She was once the hunting buddy of a dad who encouraged her competitive spirit despite the fact that, as Baker put it, "my dad was not a feminist."

Baker is only the second woman to hold the office of Jackson County Prosecutor. The first was her former boss, Claire McCaskill. 

But when it comes to the fights she wants to take on in 2020, it's not a fight for higher office.

"I see myself headed into 2020 running for Jackson County prosecutor," she said. "I'm committed to that and that's what I'm going to do."

Jean Peters Baker spoke with KCUR on a recent episode of Central Standard. You can listen to the entire conversation here.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard. She can be reached on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.