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Cop Killer may avoid death penalty in 2014

The appeals process makes it unlikely that convicted cop killer Nickolus L. Johnson will keep his date with the executioner next year.

The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld his first-degree murder conviction for fatally shooting Bristol, Tenn. Police Officer Mark Edward Vance in the face nine years ago.

The court also upheld his death sentence and set the execution for April 22, 2014.

But Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus, who helped prosecute the case nearly six years ago, said he doubts the punishment will be carried out that soon.

"I anticipate there will be additional appeals," he said Monday.

A look at Tennessee death-row cases shows that Johnson might keep a cell for decades.

The prime example of the state's lengthy appeals process can be found in Donald Strouth, who has lived on death row for 34 years.

He was 19 years old when convicted of murdering an elderly Kingsport shopkeeper during a robbery in February 1978. His appeals are currently moving through the federal courts.

Now 54 years old, Strouth has lived on Tennessee's death row longer than any of the 81 inmates there, according to the correction department.

Johnson, 34, shot 30-year-old Officer Vance during a domestic disturbance call on Nov. 27, 2004.

A Sullivan County jury convicted Johnson of murder and sentenced him to death in 2007.

He has been housed on death row at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville ever since, the Tennessee Department of Correction confirmed.

His case has wound its way through the appeal process since then, too. The state appeals court reviewed the case and upheld the conviction in March 2012.

At the time, Johnson's appeal mainly argued that prosecutors failed to present enough evidence during the trial's guilt phase to support a conviction. The appeals court disagreed.

"A rational jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant killed Officer Vance intentionally and with premeditation," Tennessee Criminal Appeals Judge D. Kelly Thomas wrote last year.

From the appeals court, the case automatically moved up the chain for review by the state's top justices.

A priority question that has to be addressed during the automatic appeal of all Tennessee death penalty cases is whether the punishment fits the crime.

In Friday's opinion, Justice Sharon G. Lee pointed to four other instances in which Tennessee officers were shot to death and jurors later settled on execution for each defendant.

"We hold that Mr. Johnson's death sentence was neither excessive nor disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases and should therefore be affirmed," Lee wrote.
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