Expert: Killer of Texas pastor was beyond hope at age 10

Fort Worth Star-TelegramOctober 16, 2012 

Convicted killer Steven Lawayne Nelson is a violent psychopath who will continue to be a danger to society, even behind bars, an expert witness testified Monday in the punishment phase of Nelson's capital murder trial.

The expert, Dr. Antoinette McGarrahan of UT Southwestern Medical Center, said Nelson -- convicted last week in the suffocation death of an Arlington minister -- was scarred from a young age by violence in his home and alienation from his abusive father and distant mother. He was likely beyond help by about age 10, she said.

"He likes violence, right?" asked prosecutor Bob Gill.

"Yes," McGarrahan responded.

"It's emotionally pleasing to him?" asked Gill.

"Yes," she said.

McGarrahan, who testified for the defense before being cross-examined by Gill, described a young man who repeatedly set fires starting at age 3 as a way of signaling for help that he never fully received.

"It was a storm waiting to happen," she said in response to questions from defense attorney Bill Ray.

McGarrahan also testified that she did not believe Nelson had multiple personalities, as he has suggested to jailers. She said that rather than having schizophrenia, Nelson withdraws from the violence he commits and attributes it to his alter egos, known as Tank and Rico.

"He feels he blacks out, doesn't remember episodes of violence," she said. "But I don't think it's the case, that he has multiple personalities...I believe he removes himself from it. That's how he views himself -- impulsive, angry, hostile. What he's saying is, 'I'm a wreck.'"

Nelson, 28, of Arlington, is facing the death penalty or life in prison without parole in the March 3, 2011, death of Clint Dobson, 28, pastor of NorthPointe Baptist Church in north Arlington. Dobson was beaten, bound and suffocated with a plastic bag during a robbery of the church building. Church secretary Judy Elliott was beaten and left for dead but survived.

McGarrahan's testimony capped a day from defense witnesses, including Nelson's mother, who told jurors of a hyperactive, difficult child who began showing signs of trouble before he ever went to school. He was eventually sent to a juvenile facility in Oklahoma, and then quickly landed in a Texas juvenile facility after his mother moved here.

The mother, Kathy James, took the witness stand in her son's defense and told of failed efforts to help her son do better in school. She said he received medication for attention deficit disorder but said it made his symptoms worse.

But she also failed to recall the multiple fires he set -- she said she only recalled the first one -- and didn't remember that he had received medication for possible seizures while a toddler.

Ray and co-counsel Steve Gordon have painted James as an inattentive mother who gave up emotionally on trying to help her son. Gill, who is trying the case with Page Simpson, countered during questioning of James, however, that Nelson also received attention from a stepfather and grandfather, and that he participated in Boys Club programs and church activities.

Nelson's sister, Kitza Nelson, who is deaf, testified through a sign-language interpreter that she taught her brother sign language. She said they often played together while left alone at home for hours at a time, and said she wished she'd known he was having problems so she could have helped.

Kitza Nelson, who is five years older than Nelson, was sent to a boarding school for the deaf in Oklahoma, and came home only on weekends, she said.

"I wish that Mom would have let me know what was going on with Steven," she said. "I could have taken more responsibility and taken care of him."

Defense witnesses also challenged DNA evidence linking Nelson to Dobson's killing, and questioned Nelson's role in the hanging of a mentally ill inmate, Johnathan Holden, 30, in the Tarrant County Jail earlier this year.

Witnesses testified that Nelson strangled Holden with a jail blanket because he wanted to get him off the cell block. A defense expert said he believed Holden may have committed suicide.

Jurors in state District Judge Mike Thomas' court are expected to begin deliberating on punishment by mid-day today.

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