Early on Valentine's Day 1985, a pharmacist, 23-year-old Donna Jean Nichols, was found murdered, shot in the head at close range. Her car was found near the nightclub where she was last seen. In the car were bullets, blood, and unidentified hair.
Police questioned Nichols' boyfriend and her former fiance and 26-year-old Michael McCormick, a hard-drinking small-time crook who knew her brother.
McCormick also was known for stretching the truth.
No one was charged with the murder for two years. Then, under pressure to solve the crime, police zeroed in on McCormick. On parole for a burglary, he was approached by an undercover cop, who was hoping to trick McCormick into confessing to the murder. The two holed up in a hotel, boozing and scheming. The cop set up a fake contract killing. The deception worked when McCormick boasted on a secret recording of killing Donna Jean.
Police now had a strong case. They had an admission, even though the day McCormick was arrested, he denied the murder.
But police also claimed they had a link between McCormick and the victim: the hair in Donna Jean's car. The FBI testified that a microscopic analysis showed it could have been Michael McCormick's.
All that was enough to send him to death row in 1987.
In 1989, a new defense team took charge of McCormick's appeal, led by attorney Max Bahner and 25-year FBI veteran Bill Curtis, now a private investigator.
"I came to believe that he did not do it," says Curtis. "There's a murderer out there on the street, and McCormick is doing his time."
Fourteen years after his conviction, McCormick is getting a new trial. The reason: The Tennessee Court of Appeals cited ineffective assistance of counsel by McCormick's defense attorney. Then, a few weeks ago, a new DNA test, requested by the public defenders office, proved the hair in the car wasn't McCormick's. The only physical evidence linking him to the murder (the FBI's hair analysis) has been discredited.
Attorney Barry Scheck is a DNA expert and co-director of the Innocence Project, which has documented 74 post-conviction exonerations.
Says Scheck, "We found, so far, in 36 percent of the cases, bad microscopic hair examination was responsible for the conviction where DNA testing demonstrated somebody's innocence."
There also are problems with the police undercover tapes. Explains Curtis, "On the tape, when he was asked what he used to kill Ms. Nichols, he said he had a .45 caliber and we know it was a 9mm. He didn't even have the gun right."
But prosecutors still believe in their case, and so does Donna Jean's mother, Joann Nichols. She declined to appear on camera, but said in a phone conversation that the family is still in pain and believes in their heart that McCormick is guilty.
McCormick says he understands the intense emotions new trial will bring. Does he ever think about what Donna Jean's family must be thinking about having lost their daughter in that way?
"I share in their frustration," says McCormick. "The same system that's failed me has failed them. The truth hasn't come out. The real perpetrator is not me."
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