MOUNT STERLING, Ill. — Brown County Circuit Clerk Rhonda Johnson received the verdict from jury foreman Michael Boylen, then stood and slowly read it aloud Thursday morning.
“We, the jury, find John Michael Dean …” she said.
Johnson then paused momentarily before finishing the sentence.
“Guilty of murder in the first degree.”
“I thought, ‘Justice for Becky,’ ” said Carolyn Woodward, the mother of Rebecca Niewohner, 44, who the state argued was shot and killed by Dean in his Mount Sterling home on June 14, 2019.
“All of his lies are thrown out the window. (The jury saw) we were telling the truth, and his lies just didn’t make sense. He didn’t need to get away with her murder. It was senseless. She didn’t deserve it.”
The jury, consisting of seven men and five women, spent about five hours in deliberation on Wednesday, then returned at 9 a.m. Thursday. A verdict was reached at approximately 11:30 a.m. Attorneys for both sides and family members gathered in the courtroom by 11:45 a.m.
After the verdict was read, defense attorney John Leonard asked that each juror be polled. Each replied that they believed Dean was guilty.
Dean faces between 45 years and life in prison
Dean, 42, faces between 45 years and life in prison. Judge Charles H.W. Burch set Jan. 27 for a hearing to address post-trial motions, then set Feb. 17 for Dean’s sentencing.
Dean, dressed in a dark suit, showed no emotion when he heard the verdict. Moments later, he briefly waved to his parents. Deputies from the Brown County Sheriff’s Department escorted him from the courtroom. His mother and father, seated in the front row, quietly held hands.
Woodward was about 10 feet away, also in the front row, flanked by her son, Kurt, and Kember Langston, a friend of Becky’s. Sitting in the row behind was Kraig Niewohner, Becky’s ex-husband. Woodward dabbed at tears as Langston hugged her.
Woodward admitted she was “scared to death” before the verdict was read.
“It’s been two and a half years,” she said. “We had 12, 13 court trial dates, and then it actually started. Then you get frayed, especially when (Dean) had all those lies.”
During his closing argument on Wednesday, Leonard read to the jury a series of text messages written by Niewohner to friends. She wrote about anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. The final text Leonard read, written by Niewohner three days before her death, read, “I need help. My mind is so f****d up I don’t know what to do. I hate living.”
The defense claimed Niewohner’s mental state led to her killing herself.
“If you knew Becky, there was no way in hell she would ever (commit) suicide. She lived for Zoe (her daughter). You didn’t know how the jury would take our story. Our truth against his lies.”
— Carolyn Woodward, mother of Rebecca Niewohner (shown at left)
(Photo courtesy of Carolyn Woodward)
‘They made her sound like a nut job’
“If you knew Becky, there was no way in hell she would ever (commit) suicide,” Woodward said. “She lived for Zoe (her daughter). You didn’t know how the jury would take our story. Our truth against his lies. (Dean’s) mom and dad just orchestrated that lie to where I wanted to puke, how he was so loving and taking care of her. They tore her apart.
“She worked every day (Niewohner was a substitute teacher at three local schools). She was loved. They made her sound like she was a nut job. Yes, she had problems. We all do. She was working on it. Some of the time, she would explode. When you get really mad, you do explode. But she had a child. She was a great mother. She was a wonderful mother. We all have good days and bad days and say things we regret.”
“You always have concerned when a jury gets a case, because you don’t know how 12 people are going to interpret something,” said Michael Hill, state’s attorney for Brown County. “I never lost confidence in our case, even with Mr. Leonard and his argument, which was very good. You wonder what are these 12 people going to do with the information we’ve given them. That’s always a crapshoot.”
Hill scoffed at the suggestion that Dean originally accepted blame for the killing because he didn’t want Niewohner’s daughter to learn her mother had committed suicide.
“I did not believe that for a second,” Hill said. “We don’t want to mislead our children about things like that. He may have had feelings for (Niewohner’s daughter), but as a parent, that is not something I would lie to my child about. I think I would want to be there to tell my child what happened.”
First-degree murder case was first for state’s attorney
The first-degree murder case was the first for Hill, who previously was a police officer before he went to law school. He was an attorney for 12 years in Scott County before starting as state’s attorney in Brown County on Dec. 1, 2020.
“The only reason I do this job is to help people, so this is satisfying,” he said. “I know it’s not about me, but there’s a sacrifice that goes into it. My family has to suffer, but so are the families out there dealing with these day-to-day instances. I don’t want to sound like a Hallmark commercial, but that’s the sole reason I do this job.”
Woodward, who lives in Aurora, said her daughter met her first husband when they attended school at Western Illinois University. They liked living in a smaller town and found a home in Mount Sterling. She worked for several years at the Adams County Health Department. Becky and Kraig had one child, Zoe, before they divorced about four years ago.
Woodward said she met Dean twice, staying at his home once for Christmas. She said she didn’t spend enough time with him to form any kind of impression.
However, she won’t forget the day she learned her daughter was shot.
“Two guys and a lady woke me up at about two in the morning,” Woodward said. “It was ‘ding ding ding ding.’ They’re ringing and pounding and pounding (on the front door). I’m thinking, ‘They’ve got the wrong house.’ You’re telling me my daughter, who five hours from here, was shot and killed? You’ve got it wrong. I just sat there. I did not believe them, but they knew other facts. Maybe I had to accept it.”
Woodward says granddaughter ‘is a tough little girl’
Woodward says her granddaughter is coping with her mother’s death.
“She is a happy little girl,” she said. “She’s always been happy. We were upset, but we didn’t see Zoe cry. So I asked her a couple times, ‘Do you need to talk? How are you doing?’ She said she was doing fine, and I said I’d never seen her cry. And she says, ‘Sometimes I go into the bathroom and close the door.’
“She is a tough little girl.”
Woodward said she wants to ask Dean if her daughter knew she was going to die.
“But I wouldn’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth,” she said.
Woodward’s husband, Ron, died 11 years ago. She will return to Aurora, meeting with friends in her garden club, playing bunko and volunteering as an usher at a historic theater. She will celebrate Zoe’s 13th birthday on Christmas Day, and she will dote on two other grandkids.
“You just go on,” she said. “Becky’s always going to be in my heart. We will always have her memories. Zoe is still a part of this family. We just don’t have my daughter anymore. I have my son, and I have my grandkids. Becky will hear me talking to her, and my husband is probably up there saying, ‘Good. She has somebody else to talk to.’ ”
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