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NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

Justice for Joni (Part 2)

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John Bell escorts Joni down the aisle John Bell escorts Joni down the aisle
  • NewsChannel 5 Investigates:Justice for Joni (Part 2)More>>

  • NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

    Justice for Joni

    Justice for Joni

    NewsChannel 5 investigates a death with remarkable similarities to the Janet March case. But unlike the March case, Joni Bell Nolan still hasn't found justice.more>>

Joni Nolan died 11 years ago, but no one has ever been prosecuted for her death.

The district attorney general says two grand juries heard the case, and both decided there just wasn't enough evidence to charge anyone.

But our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that it may not be so clear cut.

Just like in the Janet March case, there were no witnesses at the moment that Joni received a fatal blow to the head.

As John and Myra Bell mourned the death of their daughter Joni, they found comfort in watching as the family of Janet March finally found justice -- thanks to a prosecution team that never gave up.

"You got a prosecutor who prosecutes criminals and lets somebody else make the decision," John Bell tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams.

But despite evidence that they say suggests that Joni was beaten to death by her new husband, her family says prosecutors in Coffee County let Ricky Nolan go free.

"They're not interested in people like us," Bell says, choking back tears. "They weren't interested in Joni."

DA Mickey Layne repeatedly refused to take the evidence against Nolan to a grand jury -- he says, for good reason.

"There was a period of time in this case where, unfortunately, there were no witnesses," Layne says.

"There's an old saying that you can't speculate someone into the penitentiary.  You may think you know, but until you have evidence the case is not going to be prosecutable."

So Joni's father filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Ricky Nolan. Nolan never even bothered to defend himself. 

Out of frustration, Bell then personally took the case to the grand jury.

Still, Layne sent one of his assistants to advise the grand jury.

"I didn't want there to be any appearance that I might have influenced the grand jury," Layne says.

Bell says "the very first words" out of the assistant DA's mouth were "this is a case of a family that had a son-in-law they didn't like."

George Martin was one of the grand jurors.

"They wanted to present him as a grieving father and more or less ignore what he said," Martin says.

Bell says, "I said, 'Man, this ain't got nothing to do with like or dislike.  This is a story about a man that conned his way into our family and killed our daughter.'"

In fact, the grand juror says he felt there was enough to indict Nolan for his wife's death, as did other grand jurors.

But Layne's assistant was adamant.

"It was almost like the case was already decided not to bring a bill of goods against him. The police and the DA both suggested, "Wait until later on.'"

Layne says, "I think it's a case unfortunately where it would be helpful to have more evidence."

So Joni's dad went to Tullahoma Crime Stoppers and put up a $10,000 reward for information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of her killer.

But the city refused to ask the public for help.

"Why would investigators not want information that might lead to the arrest of a killer?" Williams asks Bell.

"The DA doesn't want it," he replies.

Layne responds, "Why would I do that? It doesn't make any sense."

He insists he had nothing to do with that decision, although he admits no one is looking for evidence any more.

"Have you thought about asking the TBI to take a fresh look at this case to see if they might come up with something?" Williams asks.

"No," the DA responds.

Over and over again, Joni's parents say the justice system has told them to let it go, to let their daughter go.

"She's dead, forget it, shut up, don't bother me no more -- that ain't the way it's supposed to work," Bell says.

Layne adds, "There are cases you just can't make.  There are cases the evidence doesn't support it."

"What would happen if this DA in Davidson County had told the Levines, 'Aw, forget it.'"

And Bell says Joni doesn't deserve to be forgotten either.

"Something's supposed to be done.  We deserve a day in court."

Nolan always denied killing his wife.

Still, time is running out for Joni. If no one is prosecuted in the next four years, under state law, it will be too late to bring charges.

And, even if new evidence emerges, both the police department and DA say they don't know that anyone kept the files on Joni's case.

The DA says he hasn't considered bringing in the TBI because the agency doesn't like to investigate other department's cases.

But the TBI has taken a look at cold cases before, and all it would take is a request from the district attorney.

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