Conviction stands for man who killed friend then burned body in DeQuincy

Published 11:02 am Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The conviction of a Lake Charles man sentenced to life in prison for killing his friend and then burning his body will stand.

Nathaniel Mitchell III was convicted in 2022 in the death of 29-year-old Zacchaeus Hakim Burton of Baton Rouge. Burton’s body was discovered by teenagers on July 17, 2019, at the end of a dead end road in DeQuincy. It took several days before his identity was confirmed by DNA tests.

George Buck, who was initially charged alongside Mitchell but took a plea deal and testified against him, told jurors Mitchell and Burton had met with him the morning of the murder and then together they went to the home of Buck’s grandparents. Buck said Mitchell left to buy a gun from someone and then the three of them met up again at a local gas station before heading back to Buck’s grandparents.

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According to Buck, Mitchell told him Burton was trying to kill him and “he was going to do something to stop him.”

Buck said despite knowing Mitchell planned to harm Burton, he led the pair to a secluded, dead-end road near his grandparents’ home. He said when they parked the car, Mitchell asked him to get out and retrieve a white box out of the trunk.

After not finding the box, Buck testified he saw Mitchell and Burton standing on the side of the car and watched as Mitchell shot Burton multiple times with a black and silver semi-automatic pistol.

Buck said Mitchell took Burton’s money and ID and then went back to the grandparents’ home. When he returned, he had a gas can with him and set fire to Burton’s body to “destroy any DNA evidence that might have linked him to Burton’s death.”

Phone records placed Mitchell with Burton the entire day Burton died — including at the time of his death. Video surveillance and license plate readers in DeQuincy also corroborated that testimony.

Mitchell’s ex-wife also testified she saw the pair together the day of the murder.

Mitchell was convicted of second-degree murder on Oct. 3, 2022, and sentenced  to serve life in prison without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence.

In his appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, Mitchell argued the trial court erred in allowing the prosecution to introduce recordings that weren’t properly authenticated into evidence; it erred when allowing a gun-cleaning kit found at his ex-wife’s house to be allowed into evidence; and he claims he received ineffective counsel.

In his first claim, Mitchell insists surveillance videos used during his trial were not properly authenticated because the prosecution did not establish the equipment used was properly maintained and that the recordings’ time stamps were accurate.

The court disagreed, stating “various detectives testified to retrieving various surveillance recordings and provided firsthand accounts of the recovery of the videos. Each officer described what was captured on the surveillance, how it was captured and how they determined the video’s accuracy.”

The court said establishing a chain of custody of the video is a sufficient manner of authenticating a video and found Mitchell put forth no evidence to question that chain of custody.

In his second assignment of error, Mitchell claimed the gun-cleaning kit shouldn’t have been introduced as evidence because there was nothing to tie him to it.

He claimed his ex-wife testified the kit was not hers and that she did not have a gun in her home. Mitchell claimed the prosecution caused prejudice, insinuating to the jury the kit was his, indicating he had a gun when he visited his ex-wife the day Burton was killed.

The court denied this claim stating Mitchell’s conviction “rested on the eye-witness testimony of codefendant George Buck, as corroborated by surveillance footage, GPS tracking of cell phones, and LPRs which noted the location of the vehicles being used by Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Buck on the day of the murder. While the gun cleaning kit may have been irrelevant, we find that there is no evidence to support any suggestion that the erroneous introduction into evidence of the gun cleaning kit had any prejudicial effect on Mr. Mitchell’s trial.”

As for his claim of ineffective counsel — specifically citing the failure to object to irrelevant evidence, failing to request jurors to receive Buck’s testimony with “great caution” and not objecting to testimony regarding a trip Mitchell and Buck took after the murder  — the appeals court ruled this issue should be relegated to postconviction relief, where the trial court may develop a full record on the issue.