Nickens murder trial begins in Boone County

Wednesday, September 12, 2007 | 2:59 p.m. CDT; updated 8:47 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — A witness told a jury Wednesday morning that she could hear Chris Byers struggling to get out of the trunk of his car after he was beaten by the man accused of killing him.

The accused, 31-year-old Donald E. Nickens, sat quietly in the Boone County courtroom as his lawyer, Public Defender Kevin O’Brien, and Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight made opening statements in the case.

Nickens is being tried for second-degree murder and armed criminal action in connection with the beating death of Byers, 37, whose body was found in a ditch in a north Columbia neighborhood early on the morning of Nov. 10 by a man walking his dog, the Missourian reported. Columbia police arrested Nickens two days later.

Nickens pleaded guilty to the charges in May but later changed his plea to not guilty.

As the trial began Wednesday morning after jury selection Tuesday in Pettis County, Knight told the jury that he would ask them to find Nickens guilty in Byers’ slaying, which occurred Nov. 9.

“The defendant claimed he did nothing wrong,” Knight said. “He showed no remorse.”

During opening statements today, Knight said Nickens and Byers met on Nov. 9, 2006, through friends at The Upper Deck, a bar at 5951 N. Wagon Trail Road. After a night of heavy drinking, the two men and two women, Jennifer Bell, 36, and Dana Tennyson, 43, left the bar and drove around Boone County in Byers’ car. Nickens and Byers began fighting, getting out of the car on Blackfoot Road.

Knight said Nickens beat Byers in the head with a rock.

“The defendant kept on going and kept on pounding this rock into the defendant’s head,” Knight told the jury of 11 men and two women. “The defendant was enraged at Chris.”

Tennyson testified Wednesday morning that she got out of the car and began to walk around it when she saw Byers lying on the ground.

“He wasn’t moving,” she said, crying.

After beating Byers until he was unconscious, Nickens and Bell stripped off his clothes, leaving only his socks, and put him in the trunk of the car, Knight told the jury.

But Byers was not dead, Knight said. Tennyson testified that she heard Byers struggling to escape the trunk as Nickens continued to drive around Columbia.

“I could hear Chris Byers moaning and gurgling in the trunk,” she said. “He was trying to get out.”

Byers was able to open the trunk from the inside several times, Knight said, but each time, Nickens closed the trunk lid on him.

But O’Brien sought to persuade the jury that Nickens was defending himself against Byers, who was high on drugs and alcohol and “out of control.”

O’Brien told the jury that he would present evidence showing that Byers was not only drunk but was also under the influence of Xanax and methamphetamine. “Do you have to be dead before it’s OK to defend yourself?” he said.

O’Brien also attempted to highlight inconsistencies in Tennyson’s version of events that night, pointing out that Tennyson told police and lawyers during a deposition before the trial that Byers was dressed when Nickens dumped his body into the ditch. He also pointed out to the jury that she initially told Columbia police she knew nothing of the crime, implying that she made her story up to avoid arrest.

“You told the police that you didn’t remember anything until (Columbia) police Detective John Short said, ‘The first to talk, the first to walk.’ Then poof,” O’Brien said, snapping his fingers. “You remembered.”

Tennyson maintained that she told as much of the truth as she remembered, and that she had been so drunk the night of the slaying that she couldn’t remember everything that happened.

“I’ve been consistent with everything I remember,” she said.

Testimony in the case was expected to continue Wednesday afternoon at the Boone County Courthouse.

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