Nickens found guilty in 2006 beating death

Thursday, September 13, 2007 | 11:58 p.m. CDT; updated 2:29 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Pettis County jury found a Columbia man guilty of second-degree murder and armed criminal action Thursday after deliberating for about five hours.

"That was justice," said Shari Schneider, the victim's fiancee, after the verdict was announced.

Donald E. Nickens, 31, was charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action in the November 2006 beating death of 37-year-old Chris Byers, of Holts Summit.

Byers’ naked and beaten body was found in a ditch in a north Columbia neighborhood early on the morning of Nov. 10, 2006, by a man who was walking his dog, the Missourian reported. Nickens was arrested two days later.

Byers' stepmother, Bonnie Byers, said she wanted to thank the jury for being fair.

The trial was the first for Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight since he took office in Jan. 1.

"This is a special case for me," Knight said after the trial ended late Thursday night. "It's a sad case. It's not really a time for celebration. I'm just relieved the jury did the right thing."

Mike Byrne, a public defender who assisted Public Defender Kevin O'Brien in the case, said he was dissatisfied with the verdict. O'Brien left the courtroom immediately after the trial ended and could not be reached for comment.

During opening statements Wednesday, 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 and Dana Tennyson, left the bar and drove around Boone County in Byers’ car, Knight said. He said Nickens and Byers began fighting and got out of the car on Blackfoot Road.

Knight argued that 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, where he later died.

Nickens drove around Columbia for several hours, with Byers struggling to escape the trunk, and dumped his body in a ditch in a north Columbia neighborhood later that morning, Knight said.

“The defendant obviously had a major grudge with Chris,” Knight told the jury during closing arguments Thursday afternoon. “Are we going to allow the defendant to take the law into his own hands?”

Nickens’ lawyer, Public Defender Kevin O’Brien, told the jury his client was simply defending himself.

“(Nickens) didn’t know this guy well enough to hate him. He knew him well enough to be afraid of him,” O’Brien said.

Matthew Campbell, who was working at QuikTrip, 3211 Clark Lane, testified that Byers was in an argument with a young man at the convenience store early on Nov. 10.

O’Brien played a surveillance tape showing the argument, in which the young man ran into the store and he and Byers, who was outside, argued. Campbell testified that he called police, but said he thought the younger man started the fight.

Earlier that night, police were called to the Upper Deck, where the two men and three women were drinking.

Knight argued that Nickens did not behave like a man who was defending himself.

“The defendant wasn’t at all scared of Chris,” Knight said during closing arguments.

Detective John Short, who testified at the trial, said he simply did not believe Nickens’ story that he was acting in self-defense when he fought with Byers.

“You’re right, I didn’t buy it,” Short testified.

During the interrogation after his arrest, Nickens told Short he was acting in self-defense and that he was not responsible for the murder.

“I did not strike him once,” Nickens said during a lengthy video clip of the interrogation played for the jury. “He was on top of me, beating me.”

Later in the clip, Nickens says, “I don’t know why I’m charged for the murder.”

Knight pointed to two seemingly contradictory portions of Nickens’ statements. Nickens told the detective that Bell hit Byers to get him off Nickens, so Bell caused Byers' injuries.

“He claimed that Jennifer Bell saved his life and then he wanted her arrested?” Knight asked.

Knight said Nickens’ lies to police showed that he was guilty.

Knight asked Short whether he saw any injuries on Nickens during the interrogation.

“He claimed to me that he had several injuries,” Short said. “He said something to the effect that he was beaten within an inch of his life.”

Knight then showed the jury several pictures of Nickens taken at the time of the interrogation and asked Short to describe them. Short described swelling over Nickens’ left eye, a knot near the base of his head and cuts on his knuckles and left palm.

Short also said that Nickens claimed Byers climbed on top of him and was hitting him in the face. Short said he saw no bruises or swelling besides the swelling above Nickens’ eye.

Short testified that Nickens admitted he had Byers’ blood on his hands when he walked into the store.

Knight told the jury during closing arguments that Nickens bragged to the clerk at FastLane he had beaten up “a hillbilly” who was bigger than him “out in the sticks.”

Knight also highlighted the testimony of 43-year-old Tennyson, who said Wednesday morning that Nickens was responsible for the murder.

Tennyson “consistently maintained that who was responsible for this murder?” Knight asked.

“The defendant,” Short replied.

During cross-examination O’ Brien pressed Short about Nickens’ injuries.

“You’re not a doctor,” O’Brien said. “You really don’t know what the injuries were, do you?”

O’Brien showed the jury several larger photos of Nickens that highlighted specific injuries. O’Brien also asked Short to describe a defense wound, implying that injuries on Nickens’ palm could have been the result of him blocking blows.

O’Brien played clips of Short’s interrogation of Tennyson, attempting to show that she changed her testimony to avoid arrest.

“We’ve gotta make sure that Donald gets convicted,” Short is heard saying in the video. A second clip showed Short telling Tennyson, “The first one to talk is the first one to walk, OK?”

Marilyn Hoover, who was with Nickens, Byers, Bell and Tennyson at the Upper Deck, testified that she picked up Bell and Nickens later on Nov. 10, 2006. While she was driving Bell to University Hospital for a job interview, she said a friend called her cell phone and told her police had found a body.

She said Bell was worried it was Byers, whom Nickens told Hoover he had fought the night before. But Nickens said he doubted the body was Byers, Hoover testified.

Hoover said she dropped Bell off at her job interview and gave Nickens a ride.

Two of Chris Byers' sisters, Kathy Byers and Sarah Byers, said their family is struggling to accept their brother's death.

"It's like we're missing a part of ourselves," Sarah Byers said.

Nickens is scheduled to be sentenced at the Boone County Courthouse at 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 22.

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