Jurors in the death-penalty case against Brandon David Conner could see up to 166 photographs related to the 2014 slayings of Conner’s girlfriend and their infant son, whose bodies were burned in a Winifred Lane house fire authorities allege Conner set.
Some images are expected to be “particularly gruesome” as they were recorded during autopsies on the charred remains of 32-year-old Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell and 6-month-old Dylan Ethan Conner, attorneys said Thursday during a hearing before Judge William Rumer.
The hearing was held at the Harris County Courthouse in Hamilton, because Rumer’s 10th floor courtroom in the Columbus Government Center was among the areas flooded June 17 when a pipe burst on the tower’s top floor.
Conner’s trial so far is set for Oct. 1. Rumer had sheriff’s Maj. Mike Massey testify Thursday to the tower cleanup’s progress so far and its anticipated schedule.
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Two courtrooms now are available: one on the seventh floor typically used for Judge Art Smith III’s court, and another on the ninth floor that Judge Bobby Peters uses, Massey said. For Conner’s trial, the sheriff’s office will reserve one courtroom for a month, he said, and any construction on that floor will move to a night shift to avoid disrupting court.
He said the city’s not expected to have use of the entire tower until Dec. 1. Insurance adjusters still are inspecting the damage, and the city will have to get bids for some of the construction work, Massey said.
“That’s a loose estimate at this point,” he said of the Dec. 1 access.
Conner’s trial will draw more traffic to the center, as Rumer and the attorneys decided Thursday that a pool of 500 prospective jurors will have to be summoned to ensure at least 150 are available, as the response rate typically is 36 percent of the total.
Potential jurors will be asked to fill out a survey to speed the process of weeding out those who have legitimate excuses for not serving or connections to the case that would disqualify them. Rumer set hearings for 2 p.m. Sept. 13 and 14 for the court to consider juror excuses, and a third session for 2 p.m. Sept. 24.
The judge set another hearing for 2 p.m. July 6 to sort through the prosecution’s photographs and any “victim-impact” statements the victims’ relatives would like to present during the trial’s sentencing phase, should Conner be convicted.
A death penalty trial requires first that jurors decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence, and if the verdict is guilty, the jury then has to determine whether the death penalty is appropriate.
Those testifying to how the crime has affected them are not to delve into which sentence they want, as convictions have been overturned on appeal because of victim-impact statements given during a trial’s penalty phase.
Prosecutors said so far seven witnesses are to give such testimony. Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly said he has seen some statements that will have to be redacted to remove inappropriate comments.
The other prosecutors on Conner’s case are District Attorney Julia Slater and Assistant District Attorney Wesley Lambertus.
Conner’s attorneys are J. Mark Shelnutt and William Kendrick, who said they will object to some of the photos the prosecution wants to show jurors. They maintain some are so graphic they will only inflame the jury and otherwise be of little value to the prosecution’s case.
Another issue to be considered is whether prosecutors have given the defense copies of all evidence related to DNA testing. Shelnutt said a defense expert has examined what has been provided so far, and the expert believes that up to 80 percent of the information that should be available is missing.
The defense wants “all electronic data” related to the testing, and a list of any items lost or destroyed that might have had DNA evidence, Shelnutt said.
Kelly said he again would check with the state crime laboratory to see what other information it had on the DNA tests, but he did not believe prosecutors were required to provide a list of any item that might have DNA. That would be impractical, he said: “There were hundreds of items of evidence collected in this case.”
The fire at Mitchell’s 1324 Winifred Lane home was reported at 12:35 a.m. on Aug. 21, 2014. About 30 minutes later, Officer Jason Swails saw Conner’s blue 2001 BMW turn from Wynnton Road onto Cedar Avenue in midtown before Conner parked near Davis Broadcasting, where he worked. Conner then sat in the car for 10 minutes, the officer said.
Because of recent business burglaries in the area, Swails questioned Conner and saw the suspect was shaking and sweating, and apparently had blood on him, the officer said.
Conner told Swails 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.
Rumer on Sept. 20, 2016 and June 14, 2017, denied defense motions challenging the search and seizure of evidence against Conner.
Arson investigators in 2014 searched the burned home 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.
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, Slater filed notice she would seek the death penalty.
Conner’s is the second case in which she 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.