The Death of Brian Nelson

By Steve Haney posted in Sentence and Punishment on Monday, January 27, 2014

The death of Brian Nelson is a paradox that defines the word.  Brian Nelson is a former client of mine who was sentenced to death after being convicted by a Will County, Illinois jury of the brutal multiple murder of his former girlfriend, her brother, father and father’s girlfriend.

Brian was convicted of entering the home of his former girlfriend and brutally murdering her in a jealous rage. Also at home were his girlfriend’s 15 year old brother, her father, and her father’s girlfriend.  After her death, he moved through the house and murdered the other occupants.  He, then, set the house on fire in an unsuccessful attempt to cover the crime.

Soon, thereafter, he was charged with these murders.  I, along with my colleague’s, George Lenard and Alex Beck, represented Brian.  The evidence was strong, the crime heinous. Brian, despite the brutality of the crime, was almost a dream client.  Always respectful and appreciative.  Brian accepted direction and did not try to control the defense.

We battled the question of guilt at trial only with the intent to set up the jury’s decision on the ultimate question –  life in prison vs. death by lethal injection. Guilt was a foregone conclusion.  A death verdict by the jury not so much.

Brian followed the lead we presented.  Maybe because somehow he believed he would be acquitted.  A verdict of guilty came quickly after weeks of trial. We, then, moved to the question of sentence – life vs. death.  We, of course, fought for Brian’s life, albeit a life in prison.

The jury, ultimately, settled on death after a juror who voted against the death penalty was removed.  Brian was on his way to Illinois’ death row.  He accepted it well. He, then, lived it well.  Had his own cell, did not have to mix amongest the general population, and seemingly was content with that existence .. on DEATH ROW … awaiting DEATH.

And then, the good news arrived.  The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the death sentence finding the juror who opposed a death verdict was wrongfully removed. It ordered the sentence be converted to the life sentence that my co-counsel and I worked hard to achieve.  Brian would now be removed from death row and placed in the prison’s general population for natural life.

The result – Brian hung himself in his cell upon receiving the news.  He could live contently in the isolation of death row with a pending exection. He would not live with a life sentence in the general population of a maximum security prison.

Sentenced to death and he lives.  Sentenced to life and he dies.  The ultimate paradox?  I vote yes.