Alabama death penalty case in 11-year-old girl's brutal 2019 slaying remains stalled

Contributed photo / Amberly Alexis Barnett, 11, was found dead March 2, 2019, in DeKalb County, Ala., after she went missing the day before.
photo Contributed photo / Amberly Alexis Barnett, 11, was found dead March 2, 2019, in DeKalb County, Ala., after she went missing the day before.

It's been almost two years since 11-year-old Amberly Alexis Barnett was found strangled to death in the woods near her DeKalb County, Alabama, home in March 2019 and the man facing the death penalty in her slaying is still no closer to trial or even a grand jury presentation.

Christopher Wayne Madison, now 35, was charged in Amberly's death the day after her body was found behind his house, next door to the girl's aunt at whose home she had been staying when she disappeared.

Analysis of forensic evidence in the case was pending throughout 2019, and when the coronavirus struck in 2020 the case stalled completely, according to the Ninth Circuit District Attorney's Office in Fort Payne.

Those forensic reports are still pending from the FBI and the case can't move forward until it can be presented to the grand jury, according to chief deputy district attorney Bob Johnston. Johnston said in April 2019 that forensic analysis and processing could take an extended amount of time, and the presentation to the grand jury could be delayed for months.

The case didn't make it to the grand jury by the end of 2019.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed or greatly limited operations at crime labs that perform that kind of analysis and the case has remained stalled, Johnston said Thursday.

Decatur, Alabama-attorney Brian White, one of Madison's two lawyers in the death penalty case, declined to comment Friday on the delay. White's co-counsel on the case is Huntsville, Alabama, attorney Robert Tuten, White said. The previous co-counsel in the case, Jake Watson, since took a federal job and withdrew from the case, White said.

A contact for the Barnett family could not be found to comment on the case.

Amberly disappeared March 1, 2019, authorities said at the time.

Just after dawn on March 2, 2019, the girl's body was found by DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden, a couple of police K-9 handlers and others who were searching the area where she was last seen, department spokesman Tyler Pruett said of the discovery. Pruett also helped in the search.

Welden spotted a shovel standing straight up at the back of the yard at Madison's residence and Pruett followed the sheriff along a foot trail that led to the back of Madison's yard. The officers fanned out about 100 yards as they searched.

photo Contributed photo / Christopher Wayne Madison, 35, is charged with capital murder in the March 2019 death of 11-year-old Amberly Alexis Barnett. Madison is being held at the DeKalb County Jail in Fort Payne, Ala.

"After proceeding about 150 yards up the trail, I noticed Sheriff Welden begin to run as if he had seen something. I began to run to catch up," Pruett said in 2019. "Before reaching his location, the sheriff asked me to 'hang on a minute,' so that he could make sure it wasn't a 'doll or something' he had found."

Welden got close enough to confirm it was the missing girl, and to see a blue rope around her neck. Pruett said Madison was then held at his home to make sure he didn't try to leave. He was charged later the same day.

Case details were revealed in a March 18, 2019, preliminary hearing before DeKalb County Judge Steve Whitmire to bind the case over to the grand jury, including state testimony that Madison himself initially joined in the search and had told police of a dark-colored SUV he said he saw at the home, according to 2019 reports in the Times-Journal newspaper in Fort Payne.

David Davis, chief investigator for the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office, testified that on March 1, 2019, the girl's aunt and her aunt's boyfriend went to Walmart in nearby Centre around 6 p.m. CST, leaving Barnett and her younger brother with their grandfather, who lived on the same street, the newspaper reported.

When Amberly's aunt and her boyfriend returned, Amberly was missing and they checked with neighbors who said they hadn't seen her. Madison reportedly searched the tree line behind the property multiple times and told searchers "it was good" and there was no more need to search there, according to testimony.

Near Madison's home, Davis and Welden spotted the trail that led to the girl's body. According to preliminary hearing testimony, a pine tree along the trail appeared to be disturbed and had strands of long, blonde hair stuck to it. Beyond the tree, investigators saw a dragging pattern on the ground, a sock and then a machete.

Amberly's body was found another 40 feet down the trail, one sock missing amid "evidence of foul play," Davis testified.

Amberly's face was reported as red and discolored, and a dark hair was found on her stomach, according to testimony. The preliminary autopsy report said she died by strangulation.

Other testimony on case evidence included blood found in the bathroom and two bedrooms of Madison's home, hair suspected of belonging to the girl found in the bathroom sink, an account from Madison's wife regarding Madison's interest in bondage and how unusual it was for him to have washed clothes or cleaned the bathroom.

Davis testified under defense questioning that Amberly had been staying at her aunt's home since the summer of 2018, the paper reported. Davis also said no fingerprints were found. Evidence, including blood and hair, were collected from Madison's home and the scene where the body was found.

This week, officials said there's no timeline on when court will resume normal operations.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

READ MORE: Charge upgraded to capital murder in boy's hunting death

READ MORE: Where grandeur once stood: Renowned Mentone Springs Hotel now only memories

READ MORE: How two Fort Payne, Alabama, paddlers experienced the coronavirus crisis during an 18-day Grand Canyon rafting trip

ALABAMA DEATH PENALTY

There are now 170 inmates on death row in Alabama. Of those, five are women, four white and one black. Among the 165 men on death row, 82 are black, 81 are white and two are described as “other.” The average age of prisoners on death row is 53. Executions are carried out at Holman Prison in Atmore.Source: Alabama Department of Corrections, as of Feb. 4, 2021