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Jury selection drags on in case of slain Bristol officer

DEE GOODIN • Apr 13, 2007 at 11:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - After four full days of jury selection, potential jurors in a first-degree murder trial will enjoy a full weekend at home. For those 15 individuals who make the final cut, it will be their last weekend at home for two weeks.

The shooting death of Bristol Police Department Officer Mark Vance on Thanksgiving weekend 2004 generated so much publicity Sullivan County Circuit Judge Jerry Beck excused 30 potential jurors between Tuesday and Friday because of their prior knowledge of the case.

Charged with Vance's death is Nikolaus L. Johnson, 28, of Bristol, Va. Prosecutors maintain that Johnson shot the 30-year-old officer in the face at point-blank range after Vance responded to a domestic call at a Belmont Avenue residence on Nov. 27, 2004, the home of Johnson's 17-year-old pregnant girlfriend. Witnesses told police Johnson stated he would not be going to jail for statutory rape, and that he was going to shoot the first person to enter the residence.

The prosecution and the defense are allowed to eliminate 15 jurors each. As of Friday afternoon, Johnson's court-appointed attorneys, Jim Bowman and Stacy Street, had eliminated six jurors, while 2nd Judicial District Attorney General Greeley Wells and Assistant District Attorney General Barry Staubus had eliminated only four.

Friday jurors were questioned about "voir dire," a French expression that means "to speak the truth."

Bowman asked one individual if he had "ever gotten mad and said something you regretted?" Wells told the potential juror, "There's a vast difference between that and taking a .357 Magnum pistol and shooting a man in the head."

When one female juror expressed concern about seeing any graphic photos, Wells said there would be no photos of Vance's body.

"As I thought through some of this yesterday, I thought it might be wise to tell you all I don't watch that kind of stuff on TV," the woman said. "(As a juror) I can't say ‘No, I'm not going to look at that.' I feel faint, weak (when seeing graphic photos as well as graphic descriptions). I haven't passed out, but I don't want to cause a scene. ... If it were a very bloody scene I would probably feel sick."

Beck reassured the woman, "We'd let you take a break and compose yourself. We're not cruel."

Bowman also addressed what could be described as the pink elephant in the courtroom.

"You've been asked for a commitment - that race would have no place in your consideration of this case nor would you tolerate it from anyone else."

The attorneys and the judge are hopeful the jury selection will be completed Monday morning and opening arguments can be heard that afternoon. But as Bowman told Beck, when asked about an estimation of how long the trial would last, "I don't have a crystal ball. I have no idea."

Beck will reconvene court at 9 a.m. Monday.

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