ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) – The defense attorney for an Oakdale man charged with a 1980 murder, called into question the credibility of the case’s only witness in a hearing Thursday that attempted to unveil severe flaws with the investigation.
Leo Laird, 66, is charged with first degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated rape for the death of 18-year-old Donna Gayle Brazzell. Brazzell was estimated to have died sometime between June 1980 and Nov. 1980.
On Nov. 5, 1980, the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office received a complaint related to the discovery of skeletal remains near Highway 28 West, in the Gardener area near Nichols Cemetery Road.
The investigation was originally assigned to then-detective William Earl Hilton. Missing person reports were reviewed and the FACES Lab in Baton Rouge, which studies human remains, assisted with the investigation. FACES composed a reconstruction of the victim’s skull, which provided investigators a likeness of the victim. A photograph of the reconstruction was later placed on the repository’s website.
In about 2014, an inmate named Gary Haymon, 56, came forward alleging Laird was responsible for a murder. In 2019, RPSO received information related to the identity of the victim. With the assistance of the FACES and Louisiana State Police Crime Labs, DNA testing identified the victim as Donna Gayle Brazzell. Haymon alleged Laird killed Brazzell. Laird was arrested in Aug. 2019 and a grand jury indicted him in Feb. 2020 alongside Haymon, who was already serving a 49-year sentence in an unrelated case.
On Thursday, defense attorney George Higgins argued two motions – one to quash Laird’s indictment and one that would toss out Haymon’s testimony.
Higgins claimed that Haymon has severe credibility issues and a history of making false allegations against members of the Laird family.
Higgins called RPSO detective Lt. Steve Phillips to the stand. Higgins revealed to the court that until two days prior, he had a smaller case file for his client. But, Higgins said on Tuesday he learned about the discovery of a box of new documents that he believed were essential to proving that Laird is innocent. Phillips said the information was “misfiled.” It was given both to Higgins and the Rapides Parish District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday.
“That’s the truth,” said Phillips. “That’s what happened.”
During the questioning of Phillips, testimony revealed that Haymon was in the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Cottonport when communication with the sheriff’s office began. Haymon had a request – he wanted to be transferred to Angola. Haymon began revealing information to the sheriff’s office and a prison transfer occurred.
“He (Haymon) got what he wanted, didn’t he?” asked Higgins of Phillips. Phillips said it was an attempt to find out additional information.
Higgins said he believed that there was a rush to judgement.
“Don’t you think it’s important to read the file…to fully investigate…before you take someone’s liberty away?” asked Higgins. Phillips said he didn’t know that more information existed.
In one exchange, Higgins questioned Phillips about the evidence they collected.
“Do you have any DNA that matches?” asked Higgins.
“Nothing that I’m aware of,” replied Phillips.
“Any lab reports that she was murdered or raped?” asked Higgins.
“No,” said Phillips.
Higgins also revealed court documents from Allen Parish where Haymon’s credibility was called into question related to a case with other Laird family members.
“That’s where they talked ad nauseam of Haymon lying in Allen Parish,” said Higgins.
Higgins said he also learned that Haymon was institutionalized as a juvenile: “The only witness you had was in Central diagnosed with mental problems.” Higgins said documents revealed Haymon was “suicidal,” “homicidal,” and “heard a voice calling his name.”
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman asked Phillips if the information they received on Tuesday was now the entirety of the file. Phillips indicated that the only thing that needed to be turned over was a transcript they were waiting on.
Ultimately, Judge Greg Beard denied both of the motions Higgins filed, stating that the jury are the ultimate fact finders of a case.
In an interview with News Channel 5 after the hearing wrapped, Higgins said he believed the DA’s Office needed to dismiss the case.
“I think the DA needs to dismiss this case,” said Higgins. “It’s up to them to do the right thing in the case. Or we need to go to trial. I just hate it for this guy that has set up here for two years on absolutely no evidence. You heard the testimony. They don’t have any proof that this girl was even done any harm, except this convict that has spent his entire life in jail’s testimony.”
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