ATHENS — Police in coastal Georgia coerced statements from a man accused in the 2007 rape and slaying of a 6-year-old boy, and the trial court that handed him the death penalty made numerous errors, the man's defense attorney argued Wednesday before the Supreme Court of Georgia.
David Edenfield was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to die for the slaying of Christopher Barrios in a trailer park outside Brunswick. He has appealed his convictions and death sentence to the state Supreme Court.
Defense lawyer James Yancey argued before the high court that Edenfield is a "low-functioning man" and that police got statements from him by making false promises. Yancey also argued his client didn't get a fair jury pool and that police had no physical evidence tying Edenfield to the crime.
Prosecutor John Johnson argued that Edenfield's incriminating statements were properly obtained, contested the idea that Edenfield is mentally impaired and said jury selection was carried out correctly.
Edenfield's wife Peggy, son George and a family friend were all in the Edenfield trailer when police arrived to investigate Christopher's disappearance. Yancey said Edenfield made self-incriminating statements after officers led him to believe he would be able to go home, stay out of jail to help his mother and get psychological help for his son if he told police what they wanted to hear.
They told him "the truth will set you free and a lie will place you in jail," Yancey said.
Johnson argued transcripts of the conversations Edenfield had with police give no indication of such promises. Johnson also disputed claims of Edenfield's mental impairment.
"To qualify him as low-functioning is a misstatement of the facts that are of evidence in this case," Johnson said, citing Edenfield's career in the National Guard, the fact that he held down a job and his 30-year marriage.
Yancey said the jury pool was tainted by pretrial publicity even though jurors were brought in from Jeff Davis County, about 100 miles from Glynn County where the trial was held.
The justices asked whether jurors' views were tainted by having heard coverage or if they were simply aware of the case.
"Having heard about a case, what does that tell you about anything?" Justice David Nahmias asked.
Yancey also took issue with the fact that the trial court judge did not strike a prospective juror who said he could not consider a life sentence with the possibility of parole for someone convicted of child abuse.
Johnson countered that the prospective juror, who did not end up on the jury, eventually said that he could consider the three possible sentences depending on the facts of the case.
The justices questioned whether that was enough given that the facts of the case clearly involved the molestation of a child.
Christopher went missing March 8, 2007, from the Brunswick mobile home park where his father and grandmother both had homes. His body was found a week later by a roadside, wrapped in trash bags.
Edenfield's family had moved into a home across the street from Christopher's grandmother four months earlier. Police found one of Christopher's toys, a Star Wars lightsaber, in Edenfield's front yard. Edenfield's grown son, George, was a convicted child molester.
The elder Edenfield confessed to the crime in a videotaped interview with a police detective the day after the boy's body was found.
On the tape, Edenfield said he and his son molested the boy inside their home while his wife, Peggy, watched. He said Christopher pleaded with them to stop and threatened to tell his father and grandmother, prompting Edenfield's son to begin choking the boy.
Edenfield told police he placed his own hands on top of his son's as Christopher choked to death.
Peggy Edenfield was also charged in the case but agreed to testify against her husband and son in exchange for prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty against her. She is serving a 60-year prison sentence.
Their son has been deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial.
The family friend pleaded guilty to minor charges.
Wednesday's arguments were held at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens.