Michael Lee McCormick

In the early morning hours of February 13, 1985, the body of 23-year-old pharmacist Jean Nichols was found dumping in a parking lot in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She had been shot once in the hand and twice in the head and later tests showed she was extremely intoxicated.

Police determined that she had met a man she had dated at a restaurant where they exchanged Valentine's gifts and then they parted about 11 p.m.—he had to work early the following morning and she wanted to visit some popular night spots on Brainerd Road. She was found dead around 2 a.m. by a man foraging for recyclable cardboard in the shopping mall dumpsters. As he approached the area where the car was parked, he saw another car drive off from what appeared to be a pile of rags, but was Nichols' still warm body.

Her car was found nearly three hours later, parking near the Brainerd Beach Club, a night spot that was popular among the singles crowd.

Thirty-two-year-old Michael McCormick emerged as a possible suspect after police learned that he was a friend of Nichols’ brother, “Happy” Nichols, who lived with Nichols in their grandmother's home. McCormick and “Happy” Nichols met at a junior college where Nichols was a student and McCormick was a media technician. They regularly consumed drugs together and had burglarized electronic equipment at the college.

When Jean Nichols completed her pharmacy degree and moved to Chattanooga in 1984, she learned about her brother's activities with McCormick. In an attempt to straighten out her brother's life, she demanded that the stolen equipment be removed from their grandmother's home and that “Happy’ end his relationship with McCormick. McCormick then removed the equipment.

Police learned that McCormick called his ex-wife at 9 a.m. on February 14, 1985—seven hours after Nichols' body was found—and told her of the murder. McCormick claimed he had been dating Nichols, had bought her a drink at 9:30 p.m. the night before. He also said he had been questioned by police, a statement that was not true.

After a former girlfriend told police that he had visited her on the night of February 13, 1985, from 9:30 p.m. until just after 11 p.m. and left in an intoxicated state, police decided to question him. McCormick denied that he had seen Nichols since she had returned from pharmacy school. He said he met a friend at a restaurant, had drinks and the left in separate vehicles for the Brainerd Beach Club, where he said he stayed until 11 p.m. and went home. He admitted the call to his ex-wife, but said it was a false story intended to either get her sympathy or make her jealous. He admitted to the burglary of electronic equipment.

McCormick consented to give samples of his hair and blood and saliva and a search of his house and vehicles. Nothing connecting him to the crime was found. However, police did collect a hair from the interior of Jean Nichols’ car that analysis indicated was similar to McCormick's hair.

Not long after, McCormick left Chattanooga for Arizona. When he returned, he was convicted of the burglary at the college, served a short stint in prison and was released on parole.

In January, 1987, an undercover police officer posing as a parolee introduced himself to McCormick at a parole office. They struck up a friendship and moved into an apartment together. Over the next month, the officer, Eddie Cooper, engaged in the staged transfer of stolen cars with McCormick participating. During their conversations, McCormick allegedly spoke of murderers he met in prison and Cooper suggested he had been offered $20,000 to kill someone in Knoxville.

On February 9, 1987, the lead detective in the Nichols murder staged an arrest in a bar where McCormick and Cooper were. Afterward, McCormick appeared shaken and told Cooper about the burglary conviction and the murder investigation. Over the next several days, Cooper pursued the subject and McCormick allegedly said he had refused $1,000 to kill Nichols and knew the killer’s identity.

McCormick allegedly said the motive for the murder related to the drug inventory at her place of employment and that she had been shot three times.

On February 16, 1987, Cooper exchanged a sum of cash with another man in McCormick's presence—a ruse to suggest he had engaged someone else for the Knoxville murder contract.

The next day, McCormick unexpectedly confessed to killing Nichols and Cooper taped the conversation. McCormick said he killed her over some money and it related to drugs. He said he met her at the Beach Club, they left together and he killed her. He said he dumped her body in the parking lot, parked her car back near the Beach Club and then drove home. He implied the murder was around 10:30 and said he had disassembled the gun and tossed the parts into different rivers.

On February 18, 1987, McCormick was charged with murder.

On July 1, 1987, he was convicted, based largely on his confession and the testimony of Cooper as well as the testimony about the similarity of the hair found in Nichols’ car. The defense contended that McCormick was an alcoholic and a chronic liar. The statements were false and only offered to Cooper to impress him and try to get some of the money in the Knoxville murder contract. He was sentenced to death.

His conviction was upheld on appeal, but on May 20, 1990, following a post-conviction hearing, his confession to Cooper was ordered suppressed. The ruling was upheld by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals on November 15, 2004.

In late 2007, McCormick went on trial again. By then, DNA tests had been performed on the hair and eliminated McCormick as the source and DNA testing of fingernail scrapings were negative for any male DNA.

McCormick was acquitted on December 5, 2007.

– Maurice Possley
 

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State:Tennessee
County:Jefferson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1985
Convicted:1987
Exonerated:2007
Sentence:Death
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age:32
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*