Tattoos of man accused in slaying at issue

Saturday, August 25, 2007 | 4:07 p.m. CDT; updated 4:33 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

This story has been corrected to reflect the date Nickens' trial was scheduled.

COLUMBIA — The tattoos of a Columbia man accused in a November 2006 murder became an issue during a pre-trial hearing Friday in Boone County Circuit Court.

Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight introduced into evidence pictures of Donald E. Nickens, 31, who was charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action in the beating death of 37-year-old Chris Byers of Holts Summit. Nickens drove around with Byers struggling to escape from the trunk of his car after smashing his face with a rock on the night of Nov. 9, 2006, then dumped Byers in a ditch in a west Columbia neighborhood, according to court documents. He threatened to kill the two women in the car if they told anyone about the slaying, the documents showed.

The pictures show the extent of Nickens’ injuries at the time he was arrested, but they also show tattoos on his torso and on one finger that Knight said might prejudice the Sedalia jury.

“It’s not my intent to show the jury he’s a bad person because he has tattoos,” Knight said.

Nickens has the word “scorn” tattooed above his navel, a pentagram on the left side of his chest and what appears to be a cross on his finger.

Public Defender Kevin O’Brien, Nickens’ attorney, agreed during the hearing that pictures featuring Nickens’ tattoos should not be included as evidence. But O’Brien said pictures of the bruising on Nickens’ torso were important to the case.

The two lawyers agreed that the tattoos would be cropped out of several photos to avoid prejudicing the jury. Boone County Presiding Judge Gene Hamilton expressed concern that improper editing, such as simply cutting out the tattoos, would cause the jury to speculate and cause more prejudice than the tattoos themselves.

A DVD Knight entered into evidence Friday that also showed some of Nickens’ tattoos without objection from O’Brien.

O’Brien said in court that he plans to use evidence from Nickens’ statement to police to show that a witness who was with Nickens and Byers on the night of the slaying made the fatal blow and assured Hamilton that there would be evidence of self-defense.

Nickens pleaded guilty to the charges against him on May 21, but withdrew that plea and asked for a trial on June 11. His trial was moved to Pettis County on June 13.

Nicken’s trial was scheduled to begin Sept. 11.

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