Supreme Court Affirms Conviction, Death Sentence in Murder of Bristol Police Officer

April 19, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the conviction and death sentence of Nickolus L. Johnson for the 2004 murder of Officer Mark Vance of the Bristol Police Department. The Court also affirmed several other lower court rulings regarding the trial.

In the unanimous opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Court found that Johnson was competent to waive presentation of some evidence during the penalty phase of his trial, that the trial court properly denied Johnson’s motion for a mistrial based on prosecution statements during closing arguments, and that the Tennessee death penalty statute is constitutional.

Regarding the evidence, the Court held that Johnson was competent to make the strategic decision to forego his right to present testimony from doctors regarding Johnson’s mental health. The United States Constitution affords defendants facing the death penalty the right to present mitigating evidence – evidence that may lessen the gravity of the actions – to the jury in a separate sentencing portion of the trial if defendants so choose. Tennessee law permits defendants to waive this right to present such evidence so long as the defendant is competent to make the decision and does so knowingly and voluntarily.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling that the trial court followed the proper procedure to ensure that Johnson had made a knowing and voluntary waiver of this right, that he discussed his decision with his lawyers, and that he understood the potential role the testimony may have played in the trial. Tennessee law presumes that defendants are competent and requires defendants to present evidence of their incompetency if they wish to make that assertion.

Johnson’s attorneys argued that Johnson’s desire to waive the presentation of mitigation evidence demonstrated his incompetency. The trial court ordered that Johnson be evaluated by doctors to ascertain whether he was competent, but Johnson refused to cooperate. As a result, the trial court concluded that Johnson had not overcome the presumption of competency and could validly waive his right to present mitigation evidence. Johnson made a valid waiver and could not now claim error.

The Supreme Court likewise rejected Johnson’s arguments that the trial court should have granted a mistrial because of statements the prosecutor made in his closing argument, and that the Tennessee death penalty statute was unconstitutional. The Court held that the trial judge had not abused his discretion by not granting a mistrial and had adequately instructed the jury to disregard the prosecutor’s statement. The Court also held that the Tennessee death penalty statute is valid under the Constitutions of the United States and Tennessee.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed Johnson’s conviction and ordered that the sentence of death be carried out on April 22, 2014, unless otherwise ordered by a proper authority.

To read the State v. Nickolus L. Johnson Opinion, authored by Justice Lee, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.