A Kansas City man accused of killing three people, including a 1-year-old boy, has married the essential witness against him, possibly affecting the state’s ability to secure a conviction.
Joseph L. Nelson, 23, is accused of killing his former girlfriend, their son and the woman’s current boyfriend by shooting each of them numerous times in September. The slaying of the child especially outraged the community.
A woman who allegedly was with Nelson at the time — and who told police what happened — married Nelson on Dec. 7.
Jackson County prosecutors believe the marriage was intended to exempt Shellana Victoria A. Davis from having to testify against Nelson under Missouri’s spousal privilege statute.
“It is alleged that (her) actions were intentional efforts to hinder the prosecution of a triple homicide,” the state said in a court motion.
In another filing, prosecutors said, “The state is unaware of any other witnesses to the subject event. As such, Shellana Victoria A. Davis is a necessary and an essential witness for the state.”
“Further,” prosecutors continued, “Ms. Davis’ testimony, in some respects, could become unavailable to the state after she is married to the defendant.”
According to court documents, Davis told police she and Nelson drove to the home of Bianca R. Fletcher, 17, because he wanted to upset her for creating drama between himself and her new boyfriend. Davis said Nelson walked in unannounced and then summoned her to also come inside.
Davis said Nelson displayed a gun and told the victims to sit down. Davis said Nelson and Fletcher argued, and Fletcher threw an object at him. Davis said Nelson then shot Fletcher and the others and instructed Davis to help him collect the shell casings. They found 14 of them.
In announcing charges against Nelson, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker praised witnesses “that told us what happened.”
In a court filing, the state said, “In her statement to police Shellana Davis detailed her eyewitness account of the events that form the basis for the felony charges filed in this matter.”
Baker’s office declined Thursday to comment on an ongoing case.
The people killed Sept. 8 at 5915 E. 84th St., near Hillcrest Road, were Fletcher, 18-year-old Shannon Rollins and 1-year-old Joseph Fletcher.
Fletcher was Nelson’s former girlfriend, and Joseph was their son. Rollins was Fletcher’s current boyfriend.
Nelson was interviewed Sept. 16 and denied any involvement in the murders. He was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Bond was set at $1 million cash.
Nelson and Davis later applied for a marriage license. Nelson filed as an “absent applicant” because he was in the Jackson County jail.
On Nov. 6, prosecutors filed a motion to formally interview Davis on tape, in the presence of Nelson and his attorney, before they became married. But the two were married before the court had ruled on the state’s motion.
The same day the marriage became official, prosecutors obtained a warrant for Davis’ arrest on one count of first-degree burglary and two counts of tampering with evidence. She was arrested and jailed in lieu of a $75,000 bond.
Davis’ public defender filed a motion to reduce that to a signature bond. The woman, now 20, had graduated high school and was working before she was arrested. The motion said she would stay with her mother in Kansas City, Kan., until trial.
Prosecutors argued against the bond reduction. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 27.
Frank O. Bowman III, a professor of law at the University of Missouri, said the case appears to present “interlocking problems.”
“On the face of the statute, she (Davis) would be able to decline to testify at all,” he said. “The privilege covers essentially the active testimony about anything, whether it occurred before, during or after the marriage.”
Bowman said spousal privilege would probably also rule out the admission of statements Davis made to police because they would be considered hearsay and would violate the constitutional right for Nelson to confront his accuser.
But part of the Missouri statute says the spousal privilege does not exist in criminal cases involving murder of a victim under 18. Two of the people killed Sept. 8 were under 18.
“So, if you’ve got one or more victims under 18, it looks as though you might be able to compel that spouse’s testimony,” Bowman said. “If you have three homicides to be tried in unison, I’m not exactly sure how you split (them up). I guess the question arises, in order to get that testimony, what does the prosecution have to do?”
Motions filed by prosecutors indicate they are at least concerned about securing Davis’ testimony.
The theory behind spousal privilege, which is based in common law, is to encourage marital harmony by not forcing people to condemn, or be condemned by, their spouse. It applies in civil and criminal cases and applies to communications between spouses as well as to testimony.
There are exceptions that vary from state to state. In Missouri, the exceptions include murder, rape and child abuse and endangerment when the victim is under 18. Other common exceptions include when one spouse is charged with a crime against the other one.
In a famous case in Texas in 1996, the wife of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Warren Moon was forced to testify against her husband in a domestic abuse case. She was compelled after a change in state law that struck down spousal privilege in such cases. Moon was acquitted by a jury.
Spousal privilege can also be challenged if there is reason to think it was a sham marriage, entered into to avoid testimony. In such cases, prosecutors would have to make that case and a judge would decide.
In the Kansas City murders, court documents provide a fairly detailed account of what allegedly happened that night and the next day. The bodies were discovered about 9:45 p.m. by Fletcher’s brother, who ran to get help. He told police that Nelson was his sister’s ex-boyfriend.
Another person told police that Nelson told him that night, “I did something bad. I did something I don’t think I can live with.” He also allegedly said, “I killed them. I killed them.”
The person said Nelson told him Fletcher threw a diaper box, which struck him in the head. Nelson allegedly said he “lost it” and shot her, adding that he shot Rollins and the child because they were witnesses and he did not want the boy’s crying to alert neighbors.
A separate person told police that Nelson later burned clothes in an outdoor grill. The witness told police that Nelson said he had robbed a store nearby. But police confirmed there were no armed robberies that day.
Yet another person told police that Nelson said the next morning he had gone to Fletcher’s home to “chill” but got into an argument with her and she threw a diaper at him. Nelson reportedly said someone else shot her.
“I was there and saw it, so other things had to be done,” Nelson allegedly said, adding that the shell casings were collected and he had showered numerous times and washed his hands with bleach.
That morning, Nelson went to a police station to report two guns, a magazine and ammunition were stolen from his 1999 Buick four-door.
Court records indicate evidence in the case also includes surveillance video from the Days Inn at 8601 Hillcrest Road.
Separate public defenders for Nelson and Davis did not return calls Thursday.