Lorenzo Conner sat placidly at the defense table in a New Orleans courtroom on Tuesday, occasionally flashing a smile to family members during breaks in his murder trial.
One police witness identified the 28-year-old, clean-cut Conner as the “nice-looking gentleman in the nice suit.”
But according to authorities, Conner shot and killed another man in Central City in 2011. In the seven years that followed, he was treated for mental illness at Louisiana’s forensic hospital, caught days after his escape from a hospital van and accused of inciting a riot at the New Orleans jail.
Until this week, however, he had never faced an Orleans Parish jury. That changed as prosecutors began calling witnesses against him in the shooting of Nelson Smith. Conner faces life imprisonment if convicted of second-degree murder and other charges in Judge Darryl Derbigny's section of Criminal District Court.
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Assistant District Attorney Sarah Dawkins described the case against Conner as a simple matter of identification by two arresting officers, but a defense lawyer said police had badly fumbled their investigation and let the real killer get away.
Dawkins said that about 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 27, 2011, someone walked up to the 25-year-old Smith at Magnolia and Philip streets and shot him.
Two police officers on patrol within earshot raced to the scene. They arrived in time to see Conner running. Dawkins said that just before the officers arrested Conner, they spotted him toss away a revolver.
“That gun was a ballistic match. A ballistic expert will come in and testify that this wasn’t a man running away from any scene with a gun. This was the man,” she said. “This is not guilt by being in the area. This is guilt by you have the murder weapon in your hand when police apprehend you.”
Prosecutors are not required to prove motive in murder cases in Louisiana, and Dawkins gave no suggestion as to what might have driven Conner to shoot Smith.
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Danny Engelberg, the chief of trials for the Orleans Public Defenders, said there were many people who wanted to kill Smith, who had a long rap sheet. But he insisted his client was not the triggerman.
Conner lived a few blocks away from the shooting scene, according to Engelberg. He said that when the gunshots rang out, Conner sprinted away like several others, but the cops tackled him and shoved his face into a driveway.
The officers assumed that since Conner was running, he must be the gunman, Engelberg said. But that assumption was at odds with forensic evidence, he said.
Both a bicycle used by the gunman and the fatal revolver lacked fingerprint or DNA evidence from Conner, he said. Also, Conner’s hands and body had no trace of gunshot residue.
Engelberg alleged that the lead detective on the case, Timothy Bender, came up with “outright lies” about his client.
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“Once they came up with a story that Mr. Conner threw that gun, they disregarded everything else. There was nothing else,” Engelberg said. “Now my heart goes out to Mr. Smith’s family. But he had a lot of enemies, a lot of enemies out there. (Authorities) never looked into any of his enemies … because they were already locked into their story.”
Engelberg also alluded in his opening statement to Conner’s long road to trial. A state judge declared him mentally incompetent for trial in 2013.
In 2015, Conner broke free from a van in Mid-City as he was being transported from the state forensic mental hospital in East Feliciana Parish to the Criminal District Courthouse. Two days later, he was arrested at a laundromat in Marrero.
In 2017, Conner was one of a large group of inmates facing life sentences who were rebooked on counts of inciting a riot after Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies said they set fires and attacked other inmates during a large-scale disturbance. That case is pending.