COURTNEY COCO CASE - DAY I: Texas Ranger testifies on discovery of Coco’s body, lack of DNA evidence

Day 1 of trial
Day one in the trial of David Burns, 46, of Boyce has wrapped. He is charged with second-degree murder for the October 2004 death of 19-year-old Courtney Coco.
Published: Oct. 27, 2022 at 12:22 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 27, 2022 at 10:26 PM CDT
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - Day one in the trial of David Burns, 46, of Boyce has wrapped. He is charged with second-degree murder for the October 2004 death of 19-year-old Courtney Coco of Alexandria. The jury heard from both the prosecution and defense as they laid out their cases in opening arguments, followed by a full day of witness testimony.

Opening Arguments

Opening arguments give the opportunity for both prosecution and defense to set up their case for the jury. For Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland, his opening statement took about an hour, in which he basically outlined the entire case.

That outline included all witnesses that have been asked to testify, from investigators to those Coco was allegedly in intimate relationships with around the time she was killed. Holland also told the jury about three separate witnesses who told police that Burns confessed to killing Coco, even saying Burns bragged about the killing to one witness.

One of those witnesses took the stand to testify to that claim. We’ll have more on his testimony later tonight.

Holland closed his opening statement by saying, in over the years this case has been investigated, there have been multiple leads and stories heard, which is why Holland told the jury they would “have to pay very close attention to put these pieces together.”

On the defense’s side, Attorney Christopher LaCour is representing Burns. His opening statement only lasted around 20 minutes. LaCour stated that this case will be filled with inconsistencies. He added that the case is a real “who done it?” and that, “we’re never going to know who killed Courtney Coco.” He also blamed Burns’ initial arrest on political and media pressure. He closed by saying the jury must remove emotions from their decision and to think, saying, “belief is not proof.”

Part I: 2 p.m. Update

We heard from two witnesses Thursday morning in the David Burns second-degree murder trial before a court recess for lunch.

The first witness was Waylon Durison, who has known Burns for 30 years. In order for him to testify, he was arrested in Missouri and brought in from a homeless shelter.

Durison told the jury that in May 2011, he was having a conversation with Burns, in which he told Burns that he could never kill someone. Durison said that Burns replied, “It ain’t as hard as you think.”

Durison told the jury that Burns described to him how he killed Courtney Coco in 2004: smothered her with a pillow, wrapped her in a blanket, and dumped her in Texas. Durison said Burns described Coco as his “girlfriend’s sister.”

During cross-examination, defense attorney Christopher LaCour pointed out that Durison had been convicted of theft three times and questioned his credibility. In his line of questioning that followed, LaCour referred back to Durison’s 2011 interview with police, honing in on Durison’s statements about who the blanket belonged to and who was involved in Coco’s death, inferring that Durison was implicating Coco’s sister, Lace Evans, in her death. However, Durison was insistent with LaCour that he had meant Burns was talking to him about Evans having knowledge about Coco having an inheritance, saying it was “something about money.”

At one point, Durison got argumentative with LaCour saying, “I ain’t got no damn reason to lie.” Durison later turned to Burns in the courtroom and said, “You’re sitting right there. You can’t tell them what you told me?”

When Special Assistant DA Hugo Holland asked that Durison be released following his testimony, LaCour stood up and asked that Durison be re-arrested on an active bench warrant in Rapides Parish.

We spoke to the sheriff’s office and its public information officer, Tommy Carnline. He told us they have no active warrants for Durison. He said Durison was arrested on Oct. 12 on a contempt of court charge and has been in the Rapides Parish jail since, lining up with the time he would have been brought back to testify.

Part II: 2:20 p.m. Update

The second witness we heard from this morning in the David Burns trial was Skylor Hearne, a former Texas Ranger who was the lead investigator for the Rangers on the case in 2004.

Hearne got called out to the scene on Oct. 4, 2004, the Monday that Coco’s body was found, to assist the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office with the scene in Winnie, where Coco’s body was found. Winnie is right off of I-10.

They found an abandoned building, and when you looked right into it, you could see a decomposing body on the ground, later identified as Coco by her class ring engraved with her name. She was wearing a purple LSU t-shirt, naked from the waist down, and was on her back with her knees bent. Herne described it as a “sexual position.” He described there being a little bit of disturbed dust on the ground below the body and a partial shoe print, as well.

They contacted Alexandria police and learned that her car and phone were missing. Hearne said the state of decomposition on the body indicated she was somewhere else where the temperature was hotter, like the trunk of a vehicle.

Hearne also learned from APD that Coco had recently inherited a large sum of money and the last time she was seen was about 52 hours before at a party at her house.

Coco’s phone became active on Oct. 3, 2004. They tracked it and her car down to a community in Houston. A juvenile had the phone, but he was cleared.

Coco’s car was being traded for drugs, however, they could never track down how those two items got to Houston, only that it might have been by a person named “Red,” but they never figured out who that was.

Two stains were found in the trunk of her car, one of which matched Coco. DNA on the latch of the trunk also came up for a match for a man named Fred Landry, who Coco was in a relationship with at one point. No usable fingerprints were found.

A sexual assault kit was done, but there was no DNA evidence of a sexual assault. There was also no DNA evidence under her fingernails.

On cross-examination, LaCour placed emphasis on the unknown of whether a second car was involved, with Hearne unable to testify whether Coco was placed in her own trunk.

LaCour also asked if Landry was ever considered a suspect. Hearne basically said that a latch on a trunk is like a doorknob.

LaCour wrapped up his questioning, simply asking, “Did any of that prove that David Burns killed Courtney Coco?” Hearne replied, “no.”

Part III: 6:30 p.m. Update

Dr. Tommy Brown (D.O.) took the stand as an expert witness in the David Burns trial. He is the pathologist who conducted Coco’s original autopsy on Oct. 5, 2004. Dr. Brown is 88 years old and has been a pathologist since the 70′s.

Dr. Brown described Coco’s body as being “severely decomposed and the stench was terrible.” He also said that such a stench permeates skin and clothing, and as such anyone handling the body would have the smell on them. He noted that her body showed no signs of trauma (no bruises, cuts, lacerations, etc.). Also, her body had discoloration on her left side and chest, leading him to believe she was lying dead on her side/stomach before being moved to the position where she was found.

He said the advanced state of Coco’s decomposition was not consistent with how long she had been dead, adding that she must have been exposed to heat in order for her to decompose so quickly. He also noted that the temperature in a compartment or trunk of a car would have reached around 140 degrees on days when temperatures outside were 85-88 degrees.

Dr. Brown said that the state of Coco’s decomposition made it impossible to draw a blood sample for a toxicology report, but he was able to find liquid blood inside her spleen. He went on to describe her spleen as being “mushy and rotten” and had to make an incision and squeeze the contents of the spleen into a container to take the sample.

The sample from the spleen was used for toxicology, and the results of that showed Coco had a .32% blood alcohol concentration (BAC). But Dr. Brown explained that blood samples from spleens for toxicology reports are not accepted in the pathology field because the spleen accumulates blood and other fluids after death. Also, the body itself produces alcohol as it decomposes. This means that the .32% BAC that was obtained from the sample was not accepted for qualitative analysis, but it did confirm Coco had alcohol in her system.

Results from a toxicology report done years later showed once again that Coco had alcohol in her system, and found traces of Tramadol, which is a synthetic opioid.

Dr. Brown did say Coco did not die from drugs or alcohol and that most of the alcohol in her body came from decomposition.

He explained that when he examined the contents of Coco’s stomach, he found remnants of French fries and a piece of chewing gum. The gum is noteworthy, as he said the fact she swallowed her gum was another reason he believed Coco was smothered to death.

He said the conclusion from his findings was that Coco died from “homicide by undetermined means” and that the mechanism of death was “indicative of asphyxiation.”

On cross-examination, defense attorney Christopher LaCour asked Dr. Brown to confirm that his report was just an “educated guess” to which Dr. Brown said yes but “the forensic literature throughout the years supports his findings.”

Part IV: 8:20 p.m. Update

Following Dr. Tommy Brown’s testimony in the trial of David Anthony Burns, several other witnesses took the stand concerning the investigation.

The first of those remaining witnesses was Tommy Henry, a former patrol deputy with the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office and the first officer to respond to the scene where Coco’s body was found in Winnie, Texas in 2004. Henry responded within five minutes of receiving a dispatch call, around 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 4, 2004. He gave more detail as to the location of Coco’s body, describing the abandoned building she was found in as less than a mile north of the freeway and about 60 feet away from the road.

Henry said a man driving a tractor past the building that morning made the call to police, reporting that he thought there was a body. He told police he caught the smell “like a dead animal,” which made him look over at the building. Henry indicated that had the man not been in an open-cab tractor, he likely would not have noticed anything at all at the scene.

Taking the stand next was Fred Landry, who is currently staying at the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System in Jackson, Louisiana. For much of his testimony, Landry was soft-spoken and was asked to speak up multiple times.

Landry said Coco was someone who “used to be in my neighborhood,” further testifying he had a sexual relationship with her, but knew she was having an affair with him behind the back of her boyfriend at the time, who Landry identified as “Jitty.”

When asked if he had ever been in her house or car, he replied that he had on more than one occasion.

When asked if he had anything to do with her death, he responded he had not.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Chris LaCour asked if Landry was aware his DNA was found on the trunk latch of Coco’s vehicle, he said he had not. LaCour also asked if he was aware the DNA on the latch made him a person of interest. Landry replied, “I didn’t do nothing.” LaCour finished his line of questioning, pointing to Burns and asking if Landry had ever seen him before. He said he thought he had seen him on the news but said he did not personally know him.

The final two witnesses to testify for day 1 of the trial pertained specifically to the Alexandria side of the investigation.

First, the lead detective for the case for APD in 2004, Cedric Green, took the stand. He said the initial call about Coco came through from Winnie, Texas the morning of Oct. 4, 2004. He was asked if APD had a report of a missing person by the name Coco, with police in Winnie finding a class ring with Coco’s name engraved on the inside on the body. He told police from Texas that he was not aware of any reports. He contacted Coco’s mother, Stephanie Belgard, following that phone call, asking her if her daughter had been reported missing, as well as when she had seen Coco last. Later on, after talking to the family about the tattoos on the body, Green confirmed that the body was Coco.

Green then obtained a search warrant for Coco’s home. On the initial search, he noted the items from the party hosted at Coco’s house from the night she was last seen, as well as those three individuals who were at the party, which included Coco’s friend Jacquelyn Hampton, Lonnie Melbert and Lewis Jones.

Green said they found no evidence of involvement from those three people in the murder. When asked about specific individuals being considered suspects, Green said, “I don’t know if I ever totally eliminated anyone as a suspect,” going on to say he never focused on anybody but looked at everybody.

As to other specific party evidence, Green noted an ashtray with remnants from marijuana blunts and a domino game. He said he looked for any signs of a struggle, as well, saying there was “some disarray in the bedroom but not a whole lot.” As to the missing comforter from Coco’s bed, Green said he learned about it from one of Coco’s family members but couldn’t remember who. He said it was never recovered.

Green was also asked about medical records of Coco’s. He recalled that he received records that Coco may have been pregnant but was not. There were also records Coco had an STD five days before she went missing.

On cross-examination, LaCour asked Green about possible persons of interest, including two people who stopped by during the domino game. He said he did not remember them as persons of interest. However, he did recall that Coco’s sister, Lace Evans, was a person of interest at one point, saying, “At the time, she was very evasive. She didn’t want to talk to us. We had to chase her down. Not giving us a lot of answers. Not being truthful.”

Having noted that Coco was dating multiple people at the time, Green said that Ernest Veal, who Coco was dating, was also a person of interest at one point.

While Burns is facing a charge of second-degree murder as the result of a simple robbery, LaCour asked Green about the lockbox under Coco’s bed as a motive. He said there was no substantial amount of money in the house at the time. During his questioning, LaCour detailed how Coco was the beneficiary of her deceased father’s inheritance. She began receiving monthly payments at 18. In June 2004, Coco had $20,000, but by the end of the summer, the money was gone. Green was unable to recall if the lockbox was tampered with, but he agreed with LaCour that a burglar could be a person of interest.

However, during redirect questioning with Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland, Green said it is “rare for a victim to be murdered by a stranger.”

Wrapping up the first day’s testimony was Neal Bates, a crime scene officer with APD in 2004. He accompanied Green to the search of Coco’s house on Oct. 4. Bates said the residence was secure and locked. He had to break in through the window for their first search. When asked about signs she was killed in her house, he said there were no blood stains or bullet holes.

When asked if he observed anything unusual, Bates said the trashcan was turned over, the TV was on in the bedroom, and the mattress had been lifted and the headboard had fallen. On the mattress was only the bottom sheet and three pillows but no bedspread.

Bates also went to the scene where Coco’s body was found in Winnie, Texas. He identified the shoeprints from the scene as Air Force One’s, but the shoeprints were never tied to a suspect. He also noted it looked like a vehicle had backed into the site due to finding tire tracks. When asked if he knew how Coco had gotten to the spot she was found, Bates said she had no shoes, she didn’t walk in, and she was dragged a little bit into the building.

LaCour also asked Bates about Coco’s phone records. He noted the last call from her phone was from 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 2, 2004. He said it was to a landline at 55 Kent belonging to Tonya Anderson, the girlfriend of Floyd Williams (or “Jitty”), who was also dating Coco at the time.

Background Information on the Case

Coco’s body was found in an abandoned building in Winnie, Texas on Oct. 4, 2004. Detectives said she was strangled and believe that her body was wrapped in her comforter and dumped in Texas. It is believed that Coco may have died the day before. Prosecutors have said that Burns was in a relationship with Coco’s sister and allege that he was also seeing Coco.

The case largely remained cold for nearly 17 years, at which time Burns was indicted by a Rapides Parish grand jury on April 13, 2021.

Jury selection began on Tuesday and both the State and defense questioned potential jurors largely on their pre-trial knowledge of the case. That was due, in part, to extensive news coverage over the years and a 2019 true crime podcast entitled “Real Life Real Crime: Who Murdered Courtney Coco?”

While a number of jurors in a panel that was interviewed on Wednesday were familiar with the case, the State and defense were still able to select 12 jurors and two alternates from the pool of jurors interviewed over the course of two days.

Special Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland and Assistant District Attorney Johnny Giordano are prosecuting for the Rapides Parish District Attorney’s Office. Burns is represented by public defender Christopher LaCour, who is being assisted by Willie Stephens and Randall Hayes.

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