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Man acquitted after 15 years on death row

A jury on Wednesday acquitted a man who spent more than 15 years on Tennessee's death row for the fatal shooting of a woman.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A jury on Wednesday acquitted a man who spent more than 15 years on Tennessee’s death row for the fatal shooting of a woman.

Jurors in the retrial of Michael Lee McCormick agreed with defense attorneys who said 55-year-old McCormick was lying when police secretly recorded his confession.

McCormick’s reaction was subdued as the verdict was announced Wednesday morning. He shuddered slightly and cried before being led away by court officers.

He was taken into custody to appear on a misdemeanor drug charge in an incident that occurred after he was released on bond awaiting his new trial. He was expected to be released later Wednesday.

Court: Earlier defense counsel inadequate
His retrial came after an appeals court decided his defense counsel was inadequate at the trial where a jury sentenced him to death for the 1985 shooting. DNA test results in 2001 showed that a hair used to place him at the scene of the killing could not be his.

McCormick was convicted in 1987 in the Valentine’s Day slaying of Donna Jean Nichols, 23, a pharmacist from Chattanooga. Nichols was shot in the head and hand and her body dumped in a mall parking lot shortly before police arrived early that day.

Prosecutors contended the slaying was intended to keep the pharmacist from going to police about a robbery McCormick supposedly committed with her brother.

District Attorney Michael Taylor said McCormick was “the man who brutally admitted and described how he killed Jean Nichols.”

Two years after the slaying, an undercover police officer secretly recorded McCormick’s confession when the officer set up several phony car thefts and then proposed to McCormick that they work together on a murder contract in Knoxville. The murder contract was a hoax, investigators said.

Defense: Only evidence was confession
McCormick’s attorney, Michael Richardson, said in his closing argument Tuesday that the only prosecution evidence was that recording, which was obtained by police who had “set up a man they knew to be an alcoholic and a notorious liar.”

The defense also argued that police conducted a shoddy investigation and overlooked other suspects who had dated Nichols, otherwise knew her or possibly accompanied her from a nightclub hours before her body was discovered.

McCormick did not testify. He has said he was at home when the killing took place.

Juror Anita Jinnette, 45, said most jurors were in agreement to acquit when they began six hours of deliberations over two days. McCormick’s reputation as a liar was important.

“We basically had nothing except his confession,” she said.