A military judge found United States Coast Guard Petty Officer Jimmy Barlow not guilty Thursday on multiple counts of child endangerment in connection to the death of his 3-year-old daughter Eden Lynch more than six years ago. Barlow elected to have a bench trial, which is why a judge, rather than a jury, determined the verdict.
“It wasn’t surprising at all,” said Barlow’s defense attorney Colby Vokey, a retired lieutenant colonel from the United States Marine Corps. “Grateful justice was done, but not surprising at all given the evidence.”
Eden’s biological mother Erica Lynch, who lost custody of Eden in early 2011 while dealing with drug addiction, sobbed when the verdict was announced.
“Our whole family is pretty much in shock,” said Rhonda Lynch, Eden’s maternal grandmother. “We weren’t expecting this. It’s like we’re reliving a lot of really bad memories for an outcome that wasn’t expected. We’re disappointed.”
Members of the Lynch family traveled from Maine and Southern California to watch the trial over the last two weeks. Rhonda Lynch was the last witness called by Coast Guard prosecutors before they rested their case last Saturday.
“When a death is ruled a homicide you should expect somebody would be held responsible,” Rhonda Lynch said, wiping away tears. “I thought this would do it. For us, this is just disappointment. It’s a sad day. Eden was the center of our universe.”
Eden collapsed at the Alameda apartment Barlow shared with his girlfriend, now wife, Holli Barlow in August 2011 while Jimmy was on duty. Holli told first responders that Eden had been acting strange all morning, and her collapse may have been related to a fall down the concrete stairs outside the couple’s apartment the week before.
But first responders and hospital staff were suspicious of cuts and bruises they found on Eden’s face, neck and chest area and alerted police of suspected abuse. In the weeks following Eden’s death, the Alameda County coroner ruled her death a homicide and listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head.
Although the Alameda police investigation into Jimmy and Holli seemed to stall, Jimmy was charged on four counts of child endangerment by Coast Guard prosecutors in the fall of 2016. Holli was arrested in September and is currently facing a felony count of child abuse for failing to obtain medical care for Eden in Alameda County Superior Court. She was released on bail and has not entered a plea. She attended most of Jimmy’s trial and exercised her Fifth Amendment right not to testify when she was called as a witness by prosecutors earlier in the trial.
On the morning before the verdict, both sides made final appeals to Judge Matthew Fay during closing arguments.
“This case is not about assigning blame, it’s about accountability,” said Coast Guard prosecutor Lt. Cmdr. Geralyn Van de Krol. “It’s not about perfect parenting, it’s about the reasonable actions when a person is assigned care for the life of a 3-year-old.”
Prosecutors argued Barlow failed to provide care for Eden by not seeking medical attention and leaving her in Holli’s care despite seeing bruises and scratches on the toddler’s face, neck and chest area, and being told that Eden had been “acting slow,” the morning of her death.
“Mrs. Barlow repeatedly minimized injuries and delayed notification,” Van de Krol said.
Van de Krol repeatedly referenced text messages displayed earlier in the trial that portrayed Holli as a stressed out, hot-tempered caregiver who was resentful that Jimmy placed the responsibility of Eden’s child care on her while she also raised her own daughter and attended school.
Van de Krol also said Jimmy repeatedly ignored troubling behavior Eden exhibited in the days leading up to her collapse, such as banging her head against the wall, pulling her hair, urinating and defecating on herself, and attempting to eat her own feces.
Instead of seeking professional care for Eden, Van de Krol said, “They’re just kind of winging it."
In the end, Van de Krol argued Jimmy should be found guilty because he had enough evidence to suggest that not seeking medical attention and leaving Eden in Holli’s care would cause her to suffer foreseeable harm.
“He abandoned his legal and arguably his moral duty to protect his 3-year-old daughter Eden Lynch,” Van de Krol said.
Barlow’s defense team, however, argued a guilty verdict would set a dangerous precedent.
“There’s nothing worse than losing a child, except for losing a child and being falsely accused for that death,” Vokey said.
Vokey likened the case against his client to a tree that grew from a diseased seed. You can’t tell there’s anything wrong with it, but if you were to look inside, you would find it hollow and diseased, he said.
The diseased seed was planted, Vokey said, when first responders and police quickly concluded Eden’s injuries were suspicious.
Vokey said it was compounded when the medical staff at Children’s Hospital Oakland “made the leap” that child abuse factored into Eden’s condition because they found unusual bruising and brain trauma they could not explain.
Although the Alameda County coroner’s report stated Eden’s cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head, several medical experts who testified for the defense disputed those findings.
Vokey said prosecutors made yet more leaps by concluding that Holli was abusing Eden and that Jimmy should have known and removed Eden from her care.
When asked what Holli and Jimmy Barlow would say happened to Eden, Vokey said, “That it was an accident, that they loved Eden to death.”
After the verdict, Holli cried in her seat in the front row of the courtroom and hugged several of the witnesses who testified on Jimmy’s behalf. She has not yet entered a plea in the case she faces in Alameda County. A trial date has not yet been set.
The Barlows have declined to be interviewed.
NBC Bay Area will continue to update the story as we learn more.