Nikolaus Johnson

Nikolaus Johnson takes the stand to waive his right to testify during his 2007 trial.

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Sitting near the front of a Sullivan County courtroom Wednesday, Karen Vance listened intently as lawyers and an expert witness recalled the death of her son — sometimes with graphic testimony.

Nikolaus Johnson, 40, is seeking a new trial after he was convicted in the 2004 death of Bristol Tennessee Police Department Officer Mark Vance.

Vance’s mother has been in Judge William Rogers’ court all week as Johnson’s attorneys bring in expert witnesses to testify about the case.

“Having to relive this and having to see this again is difficult,” she said.

Concerned that Johnson could receive a new trial as his post-conviction proceedings continue, she said it’s emotionally difficult to see pictures from the case and listen to experts and attorneys speak about her son’s death and Johnson’s mental state.

Vance, who had a friend by her side Wednesday, said she’ll be present as the case continues.

On the evening of Nov. 27, 2004 — nearly 15 years ago — Mark Vance, 30, entered a house on Belmont Drive in Bristol to investigate a reported domestic disturbance.

Mark Vance had only a flashlight in hand and his gun still holstered as he walked through the home. Johnson was standing out of sight in the upstairs hallway, according to court records. As the officer reached the hallway and the living room area at the top of the stairs, a shot was fired from a short distance away. The officer was shot in the head and died.

Police charged Johnson, and a jury found him guilty in 2007.

Vance recalled hearing that the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals approved a stay in the case, halting Johnson’s scheduled execution in 2014 — continuing years of appeals and court hearings.

Since 2014, Johnson’s appeal has been remanded back to Sullivan County, where Rogers will now determine whether to approve a new trial. Rogers replaced the original jurist, Jerry Beck, who retired in 2017.

As Rogers considers Johnson’s appeal, his attorneys from the post-conviction defenders’ office in Nashville have presented expert witnesses.

Dr. Marilyn Miller, a crime scene expert from the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Forensic Science, testified Wednesday. She reviewed the crime scene evidence.

When asked by Johnson’s attorneys, Miller noted that several other adults were in the Belmont Drive home in 2004, and anyone could have touched the weapon.

Miller spoke about gunshot residue, projectiles, blood splatter and other crime scene details during her testimony.

Assistant District Attorney Ken Irvine, of Knox County, was brought in as a special prosecutor in the case. He asked Miller a series of questions related to her report. Several of the questions dealt with statements Johnson made during the investigation, which Miller said were not part of her review.

Irvine asked Miller about Johnson saying “police can’t dodge these shells” and “I shot the [expletive] cop. I shot him in the head.”

Miller noted that those statements were not in her report.

Two additional witnesses, one from Hawaii and another from California, were also scheduled to testify.

Irvine, however, objected to the testimony because it was to be conducted by live video.

But the live video feed was malfunctioning, and Rogers took Irvine’s objection under consideration. He rescheduled the hearing to continue this morning.

Rogers also asked the attorneys to determine when they’ll be available through March 2020 as proceedings continue. This week’s hearing is scheduled to last through Friday and will resume on July 15.

Johnson, who was in court Wednesday, is being held this week in the Sullivan County jail.

Sign up for Email Alerts

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Recommended for you

Welcome to the Conversation

No name-calling, personal insults or threats. No attacks based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. No writing with your caps lock on – it's screaming. Keep on topic and under 1,500 characters. No profanity or vulgarity. Stay G- or PG-rated.
Load comments