Looking Back: Man accused in August 2014 deaths of Dylan Conner and Rosella Mitchell in court for pretrial motions
Columbus’ only pending death penalty case could become tangled in the issue of how Muscogee County chooses its grand juries.
Accused of killing his girlfriend and infant son before setting their home afire in 2014, Brandon Conner was indicted a year later for the murders by a grand jury whose composition his state public defenders are challenging.
Conner is charged in the slayings of Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell, 32, whose charred body was found Aug. 21, 2014, in her 1324 Winifred Lane home along with that of her son, 6-month-old Dylan Ethan Conner. Investigators have said Mitchell was stabbed to death. They have not said how the baby died.
Conner’s is at least the second pending murder case here in which defense attorneys are claiming the county’s list of potential grand jurors illegally was altered in violation of Georgia’s Jury Composition Rule, which took effect July 1, 2012.
Muscogee County uses a Canadian vendor named Courthouse Technologies to manage its jury lists. Fulton County used the same vendor before its jury lists were challenged in a case called Ricks v. State.
In that case, the Georgia Supreme Court in 2017 ruled against Fulton County, saying Courthouse Technologies in 2013 and 2014 illegally altered the county’s jury lists in violation of the Jury Composition Rule.
Conner was indicted on April 14, 2015, by a grand jury chosen from a Courthouse Technologies list of jurors supplied the previous year.
“It is impossible to imagine that the methodologies used to manipulate the jury list in Fulton County in 2014 were not used in Muscogee County during the same year,” Conner’s attorneys Emily Gilbert and Brad Gardner wrote in a motion asking Judge William Rumer to dismiss Conner’s indictment.
Georgia established the Jury Composition Rule to ensure jury pools are representative of a county’s overall population and demographics.
Previously, counties would collect a database of eligible jurors from voter rolls and “force-balance” it to match the race and gender ratios reflected in census figures. Muscogee County once used a six-member commission appointed by the chief Superior Court judge to do that.
In 2012, the state changed the process on the rationale that if the database of prospective jurors were sufficiently broadened, the jury pool automatically would reflect the county population, and no additional balancing would be required.
Under the Jury Composition Reform Act passed by the state legislature, the State Council of Superior Court Clerks collects potential jurors’ names from a database of residents 18 and older who’ve obtained driver’s licenses or state ID cards issued at license bureaus, and of people who registered to vote.
The council compares that to other lists to determine who’s ineligible for jury service because they’ve been convicted of a felony, or have died, or moved away or been declared mentally incompetent. With those names removed, the corrected list is sent to the county to use for jury summons.
Defense attorneys maintain that under Georgia law, that list is certified to be accurate, and once received, the county should not alter it. But Courthouse Technologies makes changes to that list, adding and deleting names in violation of the Ricks ruling, the attorneys argue.
After the Ricks decision, Fulton County first instructed Courthouse Technologies to stick to the master jury list it got from the state, and later ended its contract with the vendor.
Gilbert and Gardner were the defense attorneys in the Ricks case. Now representing Conner, they want to see Muscogee County’s jury management data for review, and they want Rumer to hold an evidentiary hearing on their challenge to Conner’s indictment.
During a pretrial hearing Friday, Gilbert told Rumer that Conner’s defense team expects to challenge the selection of Conner’s trial jury on the same basis.
Rumer asked the defense attorneys and prosecutors with the district attorney’s office to file proposed orders on the grand jury question by April 9, and to respond to each other’s filings by April 12.
Muscogee County is expected to get a new jury list from Courthouse Technologies this year. That list likely would be the one from which jurors would be chosen for Conner’s trial, and his defense team wants to review it, too. Rumer scheduled a hearing on that for Aug. 19.
The judge also set a court session for updates on the overall progress of the case for May 9, saying he wants to hold a hearing to keep track of the case every 30 to 45 days.
The cold case
Whether Muscogee County’s use of Courthouse Technologies violates the Jury Composition Rule also is an issue in the murder case against Rebecca Haynie and Donald Keith Phillips, who await trial in the 2005 cold-case homicide of Haynie’s estranged husband Kirby Smith, found slain in his Jacqueline Drive business, Kirby’s Speed Shop.
Arrested in 2014, Haynie and Phillips were indicted in 2016, by a grand jury picked from a list supplied by Courthouse Technologies.
Erin King, who represents Haynie, argued Feb. 21 that Courthouse Technologies illegally altered the master jury list Muscogee County got from the state, in violation of the Jury Composition Rule and the Ricks precedent.
Hearing that case is Judge Gil McBride, who has yet to rule on the defense motion to quash the indictment.