The Columbus man facing the death penalty in the 2014 homicides of his girlfriend and infant son could go to trial this coming January, a judge decided Tuesday.
In discussions with the defense and prosecution, Judge William Rumer suggested Brandon David Conner’s trial be scheduled for Jan. 22 or Jan. 29, 2018.
Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly said the trial could take four weeks – one week to pick a jury and three to try the case, including a sentencing phase for jurors to decide whether the death penalty would be justified, were Conner found guilty.
The fire and arrest
After a house fire on Aug. 21, 2014, firefighters searching Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell’s gutted 1324 Winifred Lane home found the bodies of the 32-year-old woman and her 6-month-old son Dylan Ethan Conner.
Arson investigators later searched the ruins with a dog that alerted to flammable liquids poured in three places. They also found a gas can stored in a closet. An autopsy revealed Mitchell was stabbed multiple times in the throat and torso. Authorities have not said how the infant died.
The fire was reported at 12:35 a.m.
Twenty-five minutes later, a Columbus police officer saw Conner’s blue 2001 BMW turn from Wynnton Road onto Cedar Avenue and park near Davis Broadcasting, where Conner worked. Conner then sat in the car for 10 minutes, the officer said.
Because business burglaries had been reported in that area, Officer Jason Swails decided to question Conner, and saw the suspect apparently had blood on him, and was shaking and sweating as he handed Swails his driver’s license.
Conner told the officer he had just left work, but Swails didn’t believe that because he’d seen Conner turn off Wynnton Road and park. Swails said Conner then altered his story, claiming he’d left work to get some food, but changed his mind and returned.
The officer charged him with breaking a city law against lying to police. Because police routinely search suspects being detained, officers checked Conner’s pockets, and found a bloody, yellow dishwashing glove, a bloody baby wipe, a cigarette lighter and an extended grill lighter.
Learning of the house fire where Conner’s girlfriend and infant son were found dead, investigators took him to police headquarters for questioning. They had his BMW impounded, and got a warrant to search it. Inside they found a bag of bloody clothes, a bottle of bleach and a bent steak knife with blood on the handle, authorities said.
On April 14, 2015, a grand jury indicted Conner for murder, aggravated battery, first-degree arson and using a knife to commit a crime. Six days later, District Attorney Julia Slater filed notice she would seek the death penalty.
The evidence issue
Conner’s defense attorneys argue all the evidence officers seized in his initial arrest is inadmissible because prosecutors missed a deadline to prove the existence of the city ordinance Conner allegedly violated by lying to police.
The prosecution should have provided a certified copy of the law last year during arguments over suppressing the evidence, and they did not, say Kendrick and his colleague Mark Shelnutt.
They said the window to introduce such evidence closed April 29, 2016. The following May 4, they filed a motion noting the omission.
Kelly in a letter this past Jan. 30 and a follow-up court motion on Feb. 28 told Rumer prosecutors included a certified copy of the law in a brief filed June 10, 2016.
Rumer on Sept. 20, 2016, denied defense motions challenging the search and seizure of evidence, and this past June 14 ruled the prosecution properly filed a certified copy of the law with its brief last year.
On Tuesday, Rumer told Kendrick he would not allow an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court to review his ruling. Death-penalty cases allow such pretrial reviews to avoid errors that could lead to post-conviction appeals.
Rumer has set another pretrial hearing to cover any issues not previously addressed or resolved. He asked each side to file documents outlining those matters by Sept. 29, and to respond to each other’s filings by Oct. 6. He set the hearing for 2 p.m. Nov. 9.
Conner, 38, is to attend that hearing, Kendrick said. The defendant was not at Tuesday’s scheduling session. He’s currently held in the Harris County Jail.
Among the issues likely to be addressed in the November hearing are which crime scene photos jurors should see, what victim-impact statements would be admissible, and what questions should be posed in surveys sent in advance to potential jurors, to speed jury selection.
Conner’s is the second case in which District Attorney Julia Slater has sought the death penalty since taking office in 2009. The first was the fatal shooting of local radio disc jockey Heath Jackson during a burglary at his Carter Avenue home on Sept. 7, 2010.
In May 2013, defendant Ricardo Strozier pleaded guilty to Jackson’s homicide and a string of related crimes. Judge Gil McBride sentenced him to life in prison without parole.