Crime

Are Muscogee County jury pools fair? A cold-case challenge could affect death-penalty case.

Judge to rule on jury list challenge in murder case featured on ‘Cold Justice’ episode

Attorneys in the 2004 cold-case murder of a Columbus auto shop owner continued sparring Thursday over the makeup of the grand jury that in 2016 indicted suspects Rebecca Haynie and Donald Keith Phillips. The trial is set for Sept. 23.
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Attorneys in the 2004 cold-case murder of a Columbus auto shop owner continued sparring Thursday over the makeup of the grand jury that in 2016 indicted suspects Rebecca Haynie and Donald Keith Phillips. The trial is set for Sept. 23.

The Georgia Supreme Court has announced it will not review a Columbus judge’s ruling upholding the grand jury makeup in a cold-case homicide that has yet to go to trial.

Meanwhile, the same issue could affect the city’s only pending death-penalty case.

It’s the issue of how Muscogee County compiles its jury pools — which are lists of potential jurors for court cases.

The issue of fairness and racial makeup of juries has recently been brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 2012 Georgia made a rule to help ensure all jury pools are representative of each county’s overall population and demographics.

In 2017, the state Supreme Court ruled that the way a Canadian vendor called Courthouse Technologies compiled lists of potential jurors for Fulton County violated that rule.

But Muscogee County still uses that vendor.

Rebecca Haynie and Donald Keith Phillips — charged in the 2004 cold-case homicide of her estranged husband — both asked in 2018 to have their indictment thrown out, arguing Muscogee County illegally selected the grand jurors who indicted them in 2016.

Attorneys for Haynie and Phillips argued that under the law, the list provided by the state is certified to be accurate and not to be changed. But they said Courthouse Technologies routinely alters that list in violation of the Georgia’s Jury Composition Rule (JCR) — just as it did in Fulton County’s Ricks v. State case — so the grand jury list was illegally constituted when it indicted Haynie and Phillips in 2016.

Before 2012, counties compiled a database of eligible jurors from voter rolls and “force-balanced” it to match race and gender ratios reflected in census figures. The state changed this process on the rationale that if the database of prospective jurors sufficiently broadened, the pool automatically would reflect the county population without additional balancing.

Judge Gil McBride, chief judge of the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, twice this year held hearings on Muscogee County’s jury-selection issue. After the hearings, on April 10, McBride ruled against the defense, deciding any alterations Courthouse Technologies made to the jury list before Haynie and Phillips were indicted in 2016 were not significant enough to quash the indictment.

McBride wrote that the JCR requires only that a county be in “substantial compliance” with its rules for jury selection, and Muscogee County was, when Haynie and Phillips were indicted.

The same day he issued his decision, McBride allowed it to be reviewed by the Georgia Supreme Court, to avoid future setbacks should he be overruled. On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously declined to review it, so McBride’s ruling stands.

Haynie and Phillips so far are set for trial Sept. 23.

Death penalty

As one Columbus grand jury challenge is resolved, another remains.

Brandon Conner has been indicted on capital murder in the 2014 slayings of his 32-year-old girlfriend Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell and their 6-month-old son Dylan Conner.

His attorneys also have filed a Ricks challenge to the grand jury, which was selected from a list Courthouse Technologies sent to Muscogee County the year before.

This is August 2014 video of the multiple agencies who responded in August 2014 to a house fire on Winifred Lane in Columbus where a mother and her infant child were found dead. Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell,32, and her 6-month-old son Dylan Conner wer

“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,” wrote defense attorneys Emily Gilbert and Brad Gardner, who represented Ricks in the Fulton County case.

Gilbert and Gardner, who are public defenders, just took charge of Conner’s defense last year, when he ran out of money to pay for private counsel.

Before that, Conner’s attorneys were William Kendrick and Mark Shelnutt, who first challenged the makeup of Conner’s grand jury in 2015. Judge William Rumer held a hearing on that motion on April 29, 2016, and denied it the following Sept. 20 — before the 2017 Ricks decision.

This past January, Gilbert and Gardner filed a new motion challenging the grand jury based on Ricks v. State, and in April, they filed another motion asking Rumer to reconsider Shelnutt’s motion from 2015.

So far, the issue still is pending. Rumer held a hearing on the matter May 22 and the next day ordered the county jury manager to preserve all data related to picking the grand jury that indicted Conner.

In the Haynie and Phillips case, Courthouse Technologies revealed it had destroyed the data used to assemble those jurors. Based on that, Conner’s attorneys said they had “an experienced, good-faith basis to believe that Courthouse Technologies may destroy Mr. Conner’s grand jury data if the jury clerk is not ordered to obtain and to preserve it.”

McBride’s decision on Haynie and Phillips has no bearing on Conner, attorneys said: At the Superior Court level, the two cases proceed on separate tracks, and one does not affect the other — yet.

That could change if the Supreme Court chooses to weigh in, and issue a ruling that’s binding on other cases.

Conner’s next court hearing is set for Aug. 19, when attorneys again are expected to address the grand jury issue.

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