For more than five years, the family of Nicolas Johnson have awaited justice for their son’s brutal murder. Johnson was found strangled and beaten to death in a room at El-Vu Motel in Bowman, N.D., in August 2016.
The culprits, Chase Swanson and Madison West, were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in February of 2018, when a jury found both guilty in a widely publicized court case. The ruling was later overturned by the North Dakota Supreme Court on the grounds of improper jury instructions, setting the stage for another two years of legal battles.
On Monday, April 26, Swanson would again be sentenced to life in prison — however, the latest sentence provides for the possibility of parole for the 25-year-old.
The original trial
In the original trial in 2018, the couple sat quietly before a packed courtroom at the Stark County Courthouse as Judge James D. Gion attended arguments for and against leniency by counsels representing the convicted and the state.
The couple sat separated by counsel as the judge listened to the arguments and statements provided to the court. Swanson rocked nervously in his seat with head lowered throughout most of the hearing, while West sat motionless.
The family of the victim, a Rhame native, listened intently, tissues in hand, as Judge Gion began his sentencing procedures with an opening statement. The judge pointed to the convicted couple’s “significant criminal histories” and the inconsistent arguments made during trial relating to self-defense.
“I’m optimistic and trust in the potential of good in all people. This court has the most difficult decision to make, and I intend to use a balanced approach in this matter,” the judge began. “Arguments of self-defense can’t necessarily be argued on a conspiracy to commit murder case, and restitution is out of the question because we can’t bring the victim back.”
After the judge expounded on the legal arguments made by counsel for mercy, the couple were provided an opportunity to address the court before sentencing commenced — an offer West declined.
In a prepared statement, Swanson addressed the court, very briefly asking for leniency, saying, “I feel horrible about what happened,” before retaking his seat without addressing the victim’s family seated directly behind him.
As the judge issued his sentence of life without parole to West, a sudden and audible gasp of relief could be heard coming from the family of the victim, who wore “Justice for Nick” pins on their shirts. West began sobbing uncontrollably as her attorney consoled her.
Peering back toward her own family for the first time during the sentencing, she sobbed as her family silently mouthed words of consolation and support.
Swanson was next to be sentenced.
The judge issued a mirroring sentence, life without parole, for Swanson, who stood without reaction as his family expressed their discontent with the decision through hushed expletives.
Remanded into the custody of the Bowman County Sheriff’s Office until a transfer to the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could be facilitated, the couple were escorted from the courtroom amid tears of joy and sadness.
Appeal and reversal
Swanson appealed his case to the North Dakota Supreme Court and the conviction was reversed and remanded.
The original life sentences were overturned after Swanson's attorney, Thomas Murtha, of Murtha Law Office in Dickinson, argued to the Supreme Court in June of 2019 that the district court’s jury instructions did not properly inform the jury on the culpability needed for a charge of conspiracy to commit murder.
Murtha challenged the idea that it was possible to conspire to “accidentally kill someone” in a fight.
"Intentionally 'or' knowingly is needed for it to be conspiracy," he told The Dickinson Press in an interview at the time. "You can do it intentionally, but when you put the 'or knowingly' in there, the state no longer has to prove it was anybody's purpose to kill."
He added, "Conspiracies only apply to intentional stuff. By including both, the state made it easier for itself to prove the case."
The decision to overturn the case set the stage for a second trial for both Swanson and West — though neither would ultimately face a jury. Days before West was scheduled to appear in court in September of 2020 for the new trial, she entered a change of plea and was subsequently sentenced to 50 years in prison, with 15 years suspended, and three years of probation.
On Monday, April 26, following two years of legal battles, Swanson would follow suit and plead guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.