BLOUNTVILLE - Potential jurors in a local capital murder trial, frustrated by an overheated courthouse and the pace of the proceedings, sent a clear message to the judge late Wednesday afternoon: They wanted to go home.
And home they went. After conferring with his court officer, Sullivan County Criminal Court Judge Jerry Beck, presiding over the case of Nikolaus L. Johnson, announced "The jury can't take anymore" and released them at 5 p.m.
Johnson, 28, of Bristol, Va., is accused of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Bristol Police Department Officer Mark Vance, 30. Vance was answering a domestic call when he was shot on Nov. 27, 2004. Johnson reportedly had gone to a Belmont Avenue residence to confront his underage girlfriend who had just informed him she was pregnant.
Because of the high amount of publicity the case has received, Beck, prosecutors and defense attorneys first sifted through potential jurors, questioning them to determine how much prior knowledge they had of the case.
Johnson's court-appointed attorneys are Jim Bowman of Johnson City and Stacy Street of Elizabethton. Second Judicial District Attorney General Greeley Wells, accompanied by Assistant District Attorney General Barry Staubus, is seeking the death penalty in the case.
There were originally more than 100 juror candidates on Tuesday morning, shivering in the cold as they waited to go through courthouse security. But on Wednesday it was a different story when the air conditioning failed in Beck's courtroom in Sullivan County's Judicial Center.
The area outside the courtroom, still packed with people from three different jury pools, also was uncomfortable due to a lack of air conditioning and body heat.
The proceedings were then moved into the courtroom normally occupied by Judge Robert Montgomery.
Fourteen individuals were dismissed Wednesday due either to prior knowledge or their opinions on the death penalty.
Questioned by Bowman as to his opinion on whether Johnson was guilty or innocent, one Sullivan County man said he believed Johnson was guilty.
"I have a place in my heart ... no one is going to be able to convince me otherwise," the man said. "It's cut and dried in my head. He killed him in cold blood."
Police and prosecutors say Johnson shot Vance soon after the officer entered the home. Witnesses also reportedly heard Johnson say that if he were going back to prison, it would be for murder, not statutory rape. Johnson also allegedly said he was going to shoot the first person to enter the residence.
A member of the BPD for five years, Vance was a volunteer auxiliary officer for three years before going full time 18 months before his death.
Jury selection resumes at 9 a.m. today.