MIAMI — For years, researchers have used computerized "brain mapping'' technology to read human brain waves in an attempt to diagnose maladies from attention deficit disorder to dementia.
But can the same technology be used to explain the brutality exhibited by killer Grady Nelson, who stabbed his wife 61 times in South Miami-Dade, then raped and stabbed her 11-year-old mentally disabled daughter?
His defense lawyers believe so, saying the technology proved that brain damage had left Nelson prone to impulse and violence. Now, they are trumpeting the "QEEG brain mapping'' technology after a jury, in a controversial Dec. 2 decision, rejected the death penalty and voted for life in prison.
Lawyers say Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola's decision to admit the QEEG was the first time nationally that the test has been admitted as evidence in a major criminal case.
Both prosecutors and defense lawyers believe the Nelson sentence will spark a new wave of expensive death penalty litigation, with the technology being used to justify the most violent of behavior.
"The moment this crime occurred, Grady had a broken brain,'' said defense attorney Terry Lenamon. "I think this is a huge step forward in explaining why people are broken -- not excusing it. This is going to go a long way in mitigating death penalty sentences.''
For Miami-Dade prosecutors, the decision was frustrating. They fought to no avail to exclude the QEEG evidence from jurors, arguing the science was unproven and used improperly to explain the heinous crimes.
Electroencephalogram tests, known as EEGs, record electronic energy in the brain through sensors attached to the head. The results are displayed as squiggly lines on paper, and the tests have been in use for decades.
Only in recent years have computers been utilized to create the "Quantitative EEG,'' known as QEEG, which translates the results into a digital image of a patient's brain to help analyze brain wave frequencies.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office plans to appeal Scola's October decision to allow the technology in as evidence, even though the life sentence cannot be reversed.
"It was a lot of hocus pocus and bells and whistles, and it amounted to nothing,'' said Assistant State Attorney Abbe Rifkin, who prosecuted the case. "When you look at the facts of the case, there was nothing impulsive about this murder.''
The jury in July convicted Nelson, 53, of slaying his wife, Angelina Martinez, in January 2005, and attacking her two young children. The counts: first-degree murder, attempted murder and sexual battery.
Jurors said the punishment vote was evenly split, 6-6, which results in an automatic life sentence. Three jurors interviewed by The Miami Herald were split on whether the QEEG swayed their recommendation for life.
Delores Cannon, a hospital secretary, said she leaned toward death until the technology was presented. "But then when it came in, the facts about the QEEG, some of us changed our mind,'' she said.
John Howard, an airport fleet services worker, said he, too, was ready to recommend death. "It turned my decision all the way around,'' Howard said the QEEG. "The technology really swayed me . . . After seing the brain scans, I was convinced this guy had some sort of brain problem.''
But Leon Benbow, a retired mailman, said he voted for life not because of the QEEG but because he wanted Nelson to rot in prison with the stigma of being a child rapist.