APPLING -- Yellow police tape, two bomb dogs and a walk-through metal detector protected prospective jurors at the Appling courthouse as attorneys selected a jury for the trial of Narciso Pineda.
Mr. Pineda is charged with shooting and killing Mario Molina and Leonel Vazquez, both 42, and Prisca Rosales Vazquez, 41, and her unborn child on Nov. 26 outside their trailer home at Mobile City Rentals in Grovetown.
Mr. Pineda has said he shot in self-defense. But District Attorney Danny Craig is asking for the death penalty in the event of a guilty verdict in the trial, which is scheduled to begin today.
If convicted, Mr. Pineda could be the third man in Columbia County to receive a death sentence this century.
Mr. Pineda's defense attorneys, Peter Johnson and Jacque Hawk, said that though they have not received direct threats to Mr. Pineda's life, they have been contacted by sources who indicate Mr. Pineda may be in danger from the victims' families and friends.
Fear of retaliation led police to increase courtroom security to an unprecedented level during last week's jury selection.
"We've heard various things, including the threat that a posse is supposedly crossing the border to make a hit on him," Mr. Johnson said. "You don't want to take it seriously, but law enforcement is charged with protecting him. I know my client is scared, but I don't know how much of that fear is the fear of the death penalty or the threat of retaliation."
In addition to the metal detectors and a ban on purses and bags inside the courtroom, security includes dogs trained to detect explosives. Armed guards will stand watch outside the courthouse each day of the trial.
"Threats have been relayed to us from his attorneys, but we have not received any threats," said Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris. "However, we do have extra security measures in place because threats have been alleged against this defendant, and it is our obligation to ensure his safety."
Mr. Pineda has always maintained he was justified in the shootings and told his attorneys he doesn't understand why prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, Mr. Johnson said.
"Mr. Pineda said that Mr. Vazquez shot his son and that he feared he was next," Mr. Johnson said. "He said he never saw the woman and he feels a lot of remorse for her death."
Earlier this year, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hawk asked that authorities charge Mr. Pineda with feticide instead of murder in the death of Ms. Vazquez' unborn child. But Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet denied the request.
Feticide carries a sentence of life in prison and is not a capital crime.
Defense and prosecuting attorneys face a language barrier separating them from most of those involved with the case. Mr. Pineda, along with many of the witnesses, speaks little English.
"We have to filter our conversations with our client through another person, and that has been challenging," Mr. Johnson said. "But we have faith in our interpreter and believe that we are getting not only a literal translation but one that includes all of the implications of what he's trying to tell us. My only reservation is that I cannot personally converse with him. But that's my fault, not his."
Many of the state's witnesses speak Spanish. A number of victims' impact statements to be presented in court must be translated into English before they are brought to the jury, Mr. Johnson said.
"We're all experiencing the same problems," he said.
Prospective jurors in the case were qualified Friday afternoon after a week of questioning. The actual jury will be chosen this morning.
Scotty Fletcher at (706) 868-1222,Ext. 111, or firstname.lastname@example.org.