BRUNSWICK - The first of three family members will stand trial beginning in late April on murder and related charges in the sexual abuse slaying of 6-year-old Christopher Michael Barrios Jr. two years ago.
David Edenfield, 59, who faces the death penalty in the case, will be tried in Brunswick by a jury empaneled from Jeff Davis County, Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett ruled Thursday.
Jury selection will begin Monday, April 20, in Hazlehurst and testimony will begin Monday, May 4, at the Glynn County Courthouse. The jurors will be sequestered during the trial, Scarlett said.
Hazlehurst, the Jeff Davis County seat, is 90 miles northwest of Brunswick. Predominantly rural, Jeff Davis is the farthest county from Glynn in the five-county Brunswick Judicial Circuit, which also covers Appling, Camden and Wayne counties.
Scarlett said importing a jury is necessary because of the extensive media coverage of the case in Glynn County. Jeff Davis is far enough away to get an impartial jury, but not too far that Christopher's family and interested residents can't attend the jury selection, he said.
District Attorney Stephen Kelley said he was pleased with the ruling. He told Scarlett that Jeff Davis was his first choice for a jury pool.
Not so for Edenfield's attorneys, James Yancey Jr. and John Beall IV. Yancey told the judge they have "strong objections" to keeping the trial in Brunswick. Hostility in the community triggered by "unprecedented news media coverage" makes it impossible for Edenfield to receive a fair trial anywhere in Coastal Georgia, Yancey said.
"As we move closer to trial, you have to believe you will have such a media frenzy and circus-like atmosphere that the people [jurors] will be tainted," said Yancey, who expects protesters calling for Edenfield's execution to descend on the trial.
Yancey asked Scarlett to move the trial to Bibb County or somewhere else in central Georgia.
Scarlett denied the request, but said he would reconsider if protests or other circumstances endanger Edenfield's right to a fair trial.
"We're going to have news media coverage no matter where we are in Georgia," Scarlett said.
In fact, national media first covered the search for Christopher when he was still missing and continued well past the time he was found dead.
He was killed March 8, 2007. His body was discovered a week later inside a black plastic trash bag hidden in woods about 2 miles from the Canal Mobile Home Park, where he had lived with his extended family.
Edenfield and his wife, Peggy, 58, and their 33-year-old son, George, were neighbors of the Barrios family in the park north of Brunswick.
All three Edenfields are jailed without bail.
Kelley said it should take about a week for prosecutors to present their evidence against David Edenfield. It's unknown how long the defense case may take.
Beall, however, said the trial might need to be postponed because the defense hasn't received state funding to pay for experts essential to Edenfield's defense. Because those experts haven't been paid, they haven't completed their work or turned over any of their findings, Beall said.
Scarlett said he would look into the situation. He scheduled a final pretrial hearing for March 30 in Hazlehurst to take up any matters remaining unresolved.
Christopher's grandmother, Sue Rodriguez, and his father, Christopher Michael Barrios Sr., watched Edenfield throughout Thursday's court hearing. Both appeared somewhat relieved to have a trial date set.
"Thank God. It's a start," Rodriguez said after the hearing. "There won't ever be closure until I die and go to heaven with him."
They deferred to their attorney, Mark Gelman of Jacksonville, who is serving as their adviser and spokesman during the case.
"They came here expecting further delays ... They've grown frustrated in the almost two years since Christopher was killed, but [a trial date] is a positive step forward," Gelman said.
Gelman represented Mark Lunsford, whose 9-year-old daughter, Jessica, was abducted, raped and murdered in 2005 by a neighbor, John Couey, a convicted sex offender, in Central Florida.
David Edenfield also is a convicted sex offender. He was convicted of incest against his daughter in 1994, but wasn't required to register with the state because his conviction occurred two years before the Georgia law took effect.
Kelley is seeking the death penalty against George and David Edenfield. Peggy Edenfield has agreed to testify against her husband and son in exchange for prosecutors not asking that she get the death penalty.
Court proceedings against George Edenfield, a convicted child molester, are on hold until a special civil trial determines if he is mentally competent to stand trial. If Peggy Edenfield is convicted, she will automatically be sentenced to life in prison and must serve 30 years before becoming eligible for parole.