Man tried to escape trunk, witness says

Wednesday, September 12, 2007 | 11:13 p.m. CDT; updated 11:55 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

After hearing from a witness Wednesday morning who said she could hear Chris Byers struggling to get out of the trunk of his car after he was beaten, a jury viewed more than 20 bloody photos of the victim and heard grisly testimony about the injuries that caused his death.

The man accused in the murder, Donald E. Nickens, 30, sat calmly with his attorney, Public Defender Kevin O’Brien, as Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight presented the state’s case. Knight is expected to call more witnesses Thursday.

Nickens is being tried for second-degree murder and armed criminal action in connection with the death of Byers, 37, of Holts Summit. His body was found in a ditch in a north Columbia neighborhood early on the morning of Nov. 10 by Columbia resident Thomas Hardy, who was walking his dog. Columbia police arrested Nickens two days later.

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

During opening statements, Knight described the night that Nickens and Byers met 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 and got out of the car on Blackfoot Road.

After beating Byers with a chunk of concrete 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, who fought back sobs during her testimony, 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.”

During cross-examination, O’Brien 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.”

Later in the afternoon, Edward Adelstein, the medical examiner for Boone and Callaway counties, described the severity of Byers’ injuries: Cuts and scrapes on his face, one eye swollen shut, several missing teeth and a few that were “barely hanging on.”

Byers’ skull was also fractured in three places, Adelstein said, and he had hemorrhaged when blood vessels in his head broke. The medical examiner compared Byers’ injuries to those of a boxer.

“It suggests more than the normal amount of force from simply a fist fight,” he said. “One large blow ... ultimately caused his death.”

Adelstein said Byers had been struck at least seven times.

“Seven or eight may be considered a conservative estimate,” Adelstein said.

During opening statements, 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.”

Adelstein said Byers’ blood-alcohol level was .112, above the legal limit of .08. Byers also had “very small” levels of methamphetamine in his urine, which meant the drug had been metabolized.

“It indicates that sometime he took methamphetamine,” Adelstein said. “I don’t think it was recent.”

O’Brien suggested that Byers could have had “meth mouth,” which weakens the drug user’s teeth. He also pointed to studies that suggest the combination of alcohol and Xanax, which is used to treat depression, could increase aggression.

Adelstein said that Byers had a generic form of Xanax in his blood but said that he was unaware of studies linking its use in combination with alcohol to aggression.

Testimony was scheduled to resume Thursday at 8:30 a.m. in the Boone County Courthouse.

— Missourian staff writer Robyn Seale also contributed to this report.

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