Attorneys for the man charged in Columbus’ only pending death penalty case want the Georgia Supreme Court to review a local judge’s ruling justifying the police search that followed Brandon David Conner’s arrest on Aug. 21, 2014.
Conner earlier that night is alleged to have killed girlfriend Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell, 32, and their 6-month-old son, Dylan Ethan Conner, before setting their 1324 Winifred Lane home afire.
The fire was reported at 12:35 a.m. Around 1 a.m., Officer Jason Swails 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 of recent business burglaries in the area, Swails found this suspicious, and decided to question Conner. He saw the suspect was shaking and sweating, and apparently had blood on him.
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Conner told the officer he had just left work, which Swails didn’t believe because he’d seen Conner turn off Wynnton Road and park. Conner then altered his story, claiming he’d left work to get some food, but changed his mind and returned, Swails said.
Swails arrested Conner for 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 bodies found on Winifred Lane, they had Conner’s 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, they said.
Defense attorneys William Kendrick and Mark Shelnutt argue all of that evidence now is inadmissible in Conner’s trial because prosecutors missed a deadline to prove the city ordinance against lying to police actually exists.
Authenticating the law Conner was arrested for breaking is part of proving the murder case against him, as it led to his initial arrest, the police search of his clothes and car, and his subsequent statements to detectives investigating the homicides.
Kendrick and Shelnutt say the deadline to submit such evidence to Judge William Rumer was April 29, 2016. When the prosecution failed to meet that deadline, they filed a motion the following May 4, noting the omission, and sought to have the evidence suppressed.
Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly included a certified copy of the law in a brief filed June 20, 2016.
Rumer on Sept. 20, 2016, denied defense motions challenging the search and seizure of evidence against Conner. This past June 14, Rumer ruled the prosecution properly filed the certified copy of the law last year.
Because Conner, 38, is facing the death penalty, a Superior Court judge’s rulings in dispute may be reviewed by the state Supreme Court, to avoid errors that could send the case back on appeal, after a conviction.
But Rumer on Sept. 19 told the defense he didn’t think the review was warranted.
During a hearing Thursday, the judge said he had to weigh whether the issue was so critical as to warrant the delay an appeal would cause.
Kendrick argued that because Conner’s facing death, his life merits the 45-day delay a Supreme Court review would take.
Rumer said he again would consider the defense argument and rule later.
A grand jury indicted Conner April 14, 2015, on charges of murder, aggravated battery, first-degree arson and using a knife to commit a crime. Authorities say he stabbed Michell repeatedly in the throat and torso. The nature of the infant’s injuries has not been disclosed.
Arson investigators said a dog trained to find flammable liquids alerted to three spots in the gutted Winifred Lane home where the fire is believed to have been set. They found a gas can in a closet.
Two trials, same time
So far Conner’s trial remains set for Jan. 22 or Jan. 29, but District Attorney Julia Slater said she has filed notice of a scheduling conflict because of another prominent murder case scheduled for trial then:
Superior Court Judge Gil McBride had set an Oct. 30 trial date for three men charged in the 2016 triple-homicide of a grandmother, son and granddaughter in Columbus’ Upatoi neighborhood, but defense attorneys on Oct. 23 argued they needed more time to prepare, so McBride moved it to Jan. 29.
Slater also is involved in that prosecution, and Shelnutt and Kendrick represent Raheam Gibson, one of the three suspects. The others are Rufus Burks, represented by Jennifer Curry, and Jervarceay Tapley, whose attorney is Shevon Sutcliffe Thomas.
The three are accused of killing Gloria Short, 54; her son Caleb Short, 17; and granddaughter Gianna Lindsey, 10; found dead in the Shorts’ 3057 Bentley Drive home on Jan. 4, 2016.
Police said Gloria Short and her granddaughter were beaten and stabbed to death, and the son was fatally bludgeoned.
The defendants’ 30-count indictment charges them with 10 counts each: three counts of malice or intentional murder; three counts of felony murder for homicides involving the felony of aggravated assault; two counts of auto theft; and one each of kidnapping and first-degree burglary.
Back in January 2016, Burks was only 15; Tapley was 17; and Gibson was 19. Now Burks is 17; Tapley is 19; and Gibson is 21.