Columbus’ only pending death-penalty case could hang on whether prosecutors punctually proved the city has an ordinance Brandon David Conner broke the day his girlfriend and infant son were found dead in their burned home.
Around 1 a.m. on Aug. 21, 2014, a Columbus police officer questioned Conner after watching Conner sit in his blue 2001 BMW for 10 minutes on Cedar Avenue near Davis Broadcasting, where Conner worked.
The officer was suspicious because business burglaries had been reported in the area, so he decided to question Conner.
According to police, Conner appeared to have blood on him, and he was shaking and sweating as he handed over his driver’s license. Conner told the officer he had just left work.
The officer didn’t believe that, because he had seen Conner turn onto Cedar Drive from Wynnton Road and park. Conner then changed his account, saying he had left work to get some food, but changed his mind and returned.
The officer charged him with violating a city law against lying to police.
It was on that basis that Conner initially was searched. In his pants pockets, police found a bloody, yellow dishwashing glove, a bloody baby wipe, a cigarette lighter and an extended grill lighter. They took him to police headquarters for questioning.
Around the same time police were checking on Conner, firefighters in a rear bedroom at 1324 Winifred Lane were finding the charred bodies of Conner’s 32-year-old girlfriend Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell and their 6-month-old son Dylan Ethan Conner. The house fire was reported at 12:35 a.m.
Learning of Conner’s relationship with Mitchell, police impounded his BMW 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.
Arson investigators later 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, District Attorney Julia Slater filed notice she would seek the death penalty.
For two days last spring, April 28 and May 4, attorneys in pretrial motions argued over what evidence was admissible in the case, among other issues. Conner’s defense attorneys Mark Shelnutt and William Kendrick challenged the police officers’ justification for arresting and searching their client.
Because the officers first charged Conner with violating a city ordinance, prosecutors had to show the law actually existed, by submitting a certified copy of it.
During a follow-up hearing Friday before Judge William Rumer, the defense attorneys argued the prosecution failed to submit that document before the evidentiary hearings were closed, and thus waited too late. If no evidence shows the law existed at the time Conner was arrested, his arrest is invalid, they said, citing other cases in which courts threw out arrests on that basis.
They argued this in a brief filed May 27, 2016. Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly filed a letter with the court Feb. 1 noting the prosecution included the ordinance in an earlier brief, but asking the court to reopen the evidence if necessary. Slater filed a later motion asking Rumer to take “judicial notice” of the ordinance.
In court Friday, Slater said the ordinance already was in the court record, having been attached to the earlier brief. “The truth of the matter is that ordinance was in place when the defendant was arrested,” she said.
Shelnutt said Slater’s claims were “preposterous.” It was the prosecution’s obligation to prove the ordinance exists, he added: “Mr. Conner has no burden to prove anything.”
The defense has found no court precedent allowing evidence to be reopened later, he said: “You can’t do it… A mistake has been made. The evidence has been closed.” If Rumer admits the ordinance now, the defense will appeal that decision, Shelnutt said.
Rumer told the attorneys to submit written arguments on the issue by March 15, and submit responses to each other, if necessary, by March 22.
Conner’s is the second case in which Slater has sought the death penalty since taking office in 2009,. The first was the fatal shooting of 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.