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NC5 Investigates: Justice for Joni

DA Blocks Murder Suspect's Arrest

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Joni Nolan with her father John Bell Joni Nolan with her father John Bell
Ricky Nolan Ricky Nolan
Myra Bell Myra Bell
Steve Weitzman Steve Weitzman
Mickey Layne Mickey Layne

Police say they have enough evidence to end a 13-year-old murder mystery.

But the district attorney says he still won't prosecute the man who, investigators believe, may have beaten Joni Nolan to death.

Police reopened the case after NewsChannel 5 Investigates raised questions about whether there has been justice for Joni.

"I just feel like that no one has been interested in her," says Joni's mother, Myra Bell.

Yet, Joni's parents felt certain that her husband, Ricky Nolan, had killed her.

But, as Coffee County district attorney general Mickey Layne first told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, as tragic as Joni's death was, he didn't think he could make a case.

"It would be helpful to have more evidence," Layne told NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams more than a year ago.

It was an opinion shared by the man who was then an assistant DA.

"It appeared to me that this possible could be an accident," former prosecutor Steve Weitzman recently told Williams.

But what police have since discovered now has Weitzman convinced that there could finally be justice for Joni.

"I think this case has moved from a 40 percent probability of conviction to a 70 percent probability of conviction," he says.

Joni died in 1995, just four months after her marriage to Ricky Nolan. The two got into an argument outside the Tullahoma American Legion.  Joni ended up with a fatal blow to the head.

One of Layne's problem, he told us, "Sure, there was a cause of death here. How did that happen?"

"I'm sure that she was struck in the head," says state medical examiner Bruce Levy.

Levy recently reviewed Joni's autopsy -- comparing it to her husband's claims that she simply fell down and hit her head.

"This wasn't a fall," Levy says. "This was someone who was hit in the head."

His conclusion: someone slammed something hard into the young bride's head.

"Certainly a closed fist if hit forcefully enough is capable of causing this type of an injury."

Weitzman says that "if you have a professional medical examiner -- an M.D. who deals with corpses on a daily basis -- expressing that opinion, that's very influential in my view."

In fact, Nolan told all sorts of stories about what happened -- still, not enough for Layne.

"Unfortunately, there were no incriminatory statements from a suspect," he had told us.

But investigators got that, too.

Nolan's best man told police that Nolan had admitted that "he pushed Joni in the ... parking lot, and she fell and hit her head."

"Whether he pushed her down or what he hit her with, he caused the murder," says Joni's father, John Bell.

Weitzman says the best man's statement "would be influential to a trial jury."

And police found other witnesses who told them that her body was covered in bruises, just as funeral directors first told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Greg Kilgore told Williams, "Somebody beat this girl to death."

"I found it to be very compelling evidence," Weitzman says.

Another problem, Layne had told us: an "ethics rule that a district attorney has is not to pursue a prosecution where there is no probable cause."

So, Tullahoma investigators laid out their case in this lengthy affidavit.

And a judge agreed that they did now have probable cause to arrest Nolan.

But then the DA told the judge, if a warrant was issued, he would not allow Nolan to be arrested -- and he certainly wouldn't prosecute him for murder.

"There's an old saying that you cannot speculate someone into the penitentiary," Layne told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

And he told the judge that his problem was that no one saw Nolan strike his wife.

Weitzman has a different take.

"As I've explained to trial juries many times in the past," he says, "my garbage can get knocked over, but there was snow on the ground. Dog tracks led from the dog house to the garbage cans.

"Well, my dog got a whipping. I didn't see him knock over the garbage cans, but I know he did."

Myra Bell says, "I know that he was involved in her death."

Joni's parents say they don't understand why police, a former prosecutor, even a judge could believe there's enough to charge Nolan with murder -- and yet, the DA still won't do anything about it.

"To have everything that you need and a DA not prosecute it, no, I won't accept that," John Bell says. "I won't ever accept it, can't accept it."

As for Ricky Nolan, he has never returned our phone calls.

And now, Layne isn't either.

Weitzman says he believes Layne is doing what he thinks is right.

But, in this case, Weitzman says he thinks the DA is wrong.

Previous investigations:
               Justice for Joni (Part 1)
               Justice for Joni (Part 2)
               Could There Finally Be Justice for Joni?

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