NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A jury on Thursday sentenced a man to death for fatally shooting a Tennessee sheriff’s deputy in 2018 before setting fire to his patrol car with his body inside.
The sentence follows the jury’s conviction earlier this month of all 10 charges against Steven Wiggins, including premeditated first-degree murder, in the May 2018 killing of Dickson County Sheriff’s Sgt. Daniel Baker. The grisly slaying sparked one of Tennessee’s biggest manhunts, stretching over a two-day period.
In the sentencing trial’s closing arguments, Wiggins’ defense described a childhood that included brain damage and severe abuse. The district attorney responded that Wiggins had years to develop since his mother took him away from his abusive father in 2001, is now a father himself, got his high school-equivalent degree and was a plumber.
“What you heard a lot of this week sounded like the state of Tennessee versus Scott Wiggins, a dead man not available for questioning,” District Attorney Ray Crouch said of Wiggins’ father.
Following a five-day sentencing trial, jurors entered their decision not long after beginning deliberations Thursday afternoon, declining the plea from Wiggins’ attorney to spare the man’s life.
“That’s what I’m here for,” Wiggins’ attorney, Luke Austin Evans, said during closing statements. “That’s it. It’s not to excuse him. It’s not to forgive him. It’s for one purpose. It’s to give the power of life to him, even though he didn’t give it to someone else.”
Wiggins also faces federal charges in the officer’s death. Defense attorneys had agreed that Wiggins killed the 32-year-old officer but questioned whether it was premeditated.
Baker was responding to a call about a suspicious car when he discovered it was stolen, authorities have said. Erika Castro-Miles, who is also charged in Baker’s death, was in the car when Wiggins shot Baker, dragged the deputy’s body into the police cruiser and drove it to a rural area, where he set it on fire, court documents state.
A backpack he said he fled with was found nearby with two guns inside, including Baker’s backup weapon, court documents state.
Wiggins had been at large after being charged the day before for assaulting Castro-Miles and stealing that car from her, according to a local police report. Castro-Miles told police Wiggins had been “doing meth all night and smoking marijuana,” the report says.
Baker had determined the car was stolen and ordered the two out of the car, but Wiggins claimed his door wouldn’t open and Baker ordered Wiggins to leave from the passenger side, prosecutors said.
Baker’s body camera recorded some of what happened next: While he walked around the rear of the car to the passenger side, Wiggins fired a pistol about five times, hitting him at least once. Baker tried to take cover but collapsed, prosecutors said.
Wiggins then fired five more times, the last three at short range, prosecutors said.
After firing those shots, Wiggins went to where Baker was lying and thought he was dead, but “didn’t want the man (Baker) to suffer,” so he shot Baker in the head multiple times “like a dog, you know, man, it’s suffering. You make sure,” Wiggins told investigators in court documents.
Wiggins answered a radio dispatch and a call from another deputy on Baker’s cellphone, pretending to be Baker, the state indictment says.
Then he dragged the deputy’s body into the rear seat of the patrol car and drove it 3 or 4 miles (5 or 6 kilometers) to a field, court filings say. He told investigators he was thinking about the TV show “CSI” and worried about forensic evidence and fingerprints, so he lit paperwork on fire in the front and back seats and fled, court documents show.
The evidence, however, wasn’t destroyed. Baker was found with two gunshot wounds to his torso, one to his hand and three to the left side of his head. A preliminary autopsy showed the right side of his uniform was charred and his skin blackened.
The case spurred passage in 2019 of the Sgt. Daniel Baker Act, a state law that removed an intermediate court from reviewing Tennessee death penalty cases.
The trial in Dickson County, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Nashville, drew its jury from about 220 miles (350 kilometers) to the east in Knox County.