Crime

Capital case: Defense argues against showing jurors gruesome photos

TIM CHITWOOD

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com

Video: Judge hears motions in Brandon Conner’s capital case

Superior Court Judge William Rumer heard Monday pretrial motions from attorneys in the capital murder case of a Columbus man accused of killing his girlfriend and infant son before setting their house afire in 2014. Brandon David Conner faces the
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Superior Court Judge William Rumer heard Monday pretrial motions from attorneys in the capital murder case of a Columbus man accused of killing his girlfriend and infant son before setting their house afire in 2014. Brandon David Conner faces the

Jurors in the death penalty trial of Brandon Conner may need stout constitutions to withstand the evidence they’ll be shown.

That’s because the evidence may include photos of the charred bodies of Conner’s 32-year-old girlfriend Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell and their 6-month-old son Dylan Conner, found Aug. 21, 2014 in their burned 1324 Winifred Lane home.

In a hearing on pretrial motions Monday before Muscogee Superior Court Judge William Rumer, defense attorneys William Kendrick and Mark Shelnutt made two arguments that became tied together:

• They claimed Conner’s indictment is deficient in that it does not specify the infant’s cause of death.

• They said showing the jury gruesome photos from the crime would serve only to inflame jurors’ passions, subjecting Conner to unfair prejudice.

One count in Conner’s indictment says Dylan was killed in “a manner unknown to the grand jury at this time.” Another says Conner assaulted the baby “with an object unknown to the grand jury at this time.”

The mother’s autopsy showed she was stabbed to death before the fire, leaving wounds on her neck and torso, authorities said.

Kendrick said the defense can’t adequately fight Conner’s murder charges regarding the infant if they don’t know how he’s accused of killing the child: “We’re at a loss as to how to defend him on those counts.”

Prosecutor Wesley Lambertus said the baby’s precise cause of death remains undetermined because the body was so badly burned the medical examiner was unable to specify what killed the child. He also said the law does not require such precision to sustain an indictment.

The courts have held that the circumstances of some homicides do not permit greater certainty as to a cause of death, he said.

He cited as an example the case of McKibbins v. State, a 2013 Georgia Supreme Court decision regarding the murder of a man suspected of stealing cocaine. The defendant and his accomplices cut the victim’s body up with a chainsaw and buried the pieces.

On appeal, the convict argued his indictment for “kidnapping with bodily injury” neglected to specify how he injured the victim. The justices ruled that detail was unnecessary as long as the defendant properly was charged under the law.

Beyond that, the judges said the circumstances precluded such a determination, as the body “was so dismembered and decomposed that the medical examiner was unable to definitively ascertain his injuries and cause of death.”

As for admitting into evidence gruesome photographs, Lambertus cited court precedents in which judges allowed the introduction of crime-scene and autopsy photos to aid in the testimony of medical examiners, who typically explain how victims died, but also could be called to explain why autopsies failed to determine a cause of death.

On that issue, the prosecutor referred to a Georgia Supreme Court case decided just last week, Simpson v. The State, an opinion delivered Jan. 19.

In that case the defendant was convicted of beating a man to death with a two-by-four board, a computer and a computer monitor, and leaving the victim in a vacant house the two broke into.

On appeal, the convict complained the crime-scene and autopsy photographs shown the jury were prejudicial. Some photos showed the victim’s skull after the flesh was removed.

“Those crime-scene and pre-autopsy photographs were properly admitted into evidence to show the nature and extent of the wounds and the location of physical evidence at the scene, as well as to assist the testimony of the medical examiner,” the court ruled.

It said the photos of the victim’s skull were necessary to show “different injuries that were identified only upon examining the exposed skull…. Consequently, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted the post-autopsy photographs.”

Rumer did not immediately rule on these issues, and instead asked attorneys to file motions supporting their arguments by noon Monday, Feb. 8.

The defense also argued Monday that Rumer should issue a gag order prohibiting prosecutors from publicly discussing the case, claiming the district attorney’s staff risked tainting the jury pool with details of the investigation.

District Attorney Julia Slater countered that her office has not released any details of the double-homicide, but said she would not object if a gag order applied to both the prosecution and defense. Rumer asked attorneys on both sides to draft gag orders for him to consider.

The judge did not rule Monday on any of the dozens of defense motions filed in Conner’s case. A second round of pretrial hearings is set for Feb. 15.

Other defense motions ask Rumer to suppress evidence patrol officers found on Conner after the homicides, when they noticed him sitting in his 2001 BMW 740i on Cedar Avenue off Wynnton Road.

The officers said Conner was “nervous, shaking, sweating profusely, and had blood on his face and clothing,” according to prosecutors.

After questioning him, police charged him with making false statements to law enforcement, and impounded his car.

Officers by policy search suspects before putting them in a patrol car. Searching Conner, they found “a bloody glove, a bloody baby wipe, and two lighters in his pockets,” according to prosecutors.

Court documents say police got a warrant to search the BMW, in which they found “a knife and bloody clothing.”

In moving to suppress such evidence, Conner’s defense attorneys argue police had no probable cause to detain and search him, because he had done nothing to arouse suspicion, as his car “was lawfully parked outside his place of employment, Davis Broadcasting on Cedar Avenue in Columbus….”

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