DICKINSON, N.D. — For more than five years, the family of Nicolas Johnson have awaited justice for their son’s brutal killing. Johnson was found strangled and beaten to death in a room at El-Vu Motel in Bowman, N.D., in August 2016.
Chase Swanson and Madison West were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in February 2018. 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.
In the original trial in 2018, Judge James D. Gion pointed to Swanson and West’s “significant criminal histories” and the inconsistent arguments made during trial relating to self-defense. He sentenced both to life in prison without parole.
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, argued to the Supreme Court in June 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 said 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 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, Swanson would follow suit and plead guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.