LIVINGSTON, Texas (AP) — Steven Lawayne Nelson sat calmly in a tiny visiting cage on Texas' death row, displaying none of the violent murderer described in psychological evaluations as a man hooked on mayhem.
Nelson savagely beat and suffocated a young pastor at a North Texas church. He was later accused of strangling a mentally ill inmate while in custody. In October he ended one of Fort Worth's most publicized trials in years by breaking a water pipe in a holding cell, flooding the courtroom with foul black water.
"I've really got anger problems," Nelson, 25, told The Associated Press in his first interview since arriving on death row. "Anything can set me off."
But Nelson takes issue with being labeled a crime addict and maintains he didn't kill anyone. In the two months since arriving on death row, he said he has not had any violent episodes and is "trying to maintain my behavior."
His opportunities for misbehavior are considerably more limited now.
Nelson, sentenced in mid-October to die for the robbery-slaying of an Arlington pastor and the severe beating of a church secretary, is locked up alone in his cell 23 hours a day at the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. During the 24th hour, he's alone for recreation.
The isolation is the routine for death row inmates in Texas. Misbehavior can only make it more severe, with tighter restrictions on privileges like commissary purchases or radio access.
"It's a lot different here," Nelson acknowledged from his visiting cage.
Bob Gill, the Tarrant County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Nelson, predicted the prisoner's serenity is temporary.
"As soon as he gets any indication of an opportunity, he will be violent again," Gill said. "It's not a tribute to Mr. Nelson if he's not been violent on death row. It's a tribute to the procedures they have on death row."
Nelson, in his final moments in Tarrant County custody before his immediate transfer to state prison, ended his murder trial by breaking the pipe and flooding the courtroom — a culmination of months of belligerence while in county custody.
Days before the sprinkler incident, in the holding cell after jurors convicted him of capital murder, he broke an electronic shock cuff from around his ankle. And jurors were shown a video of him screaming and fighting against shackles in the Tarrant County Jail last summer while awaiting trial. He also denied accusations he's responsible for strangling a mentally ill county jail inmate.
The trial outcome was a foregone conclusion, he said.
"There already was hatred toward me because of the nature of the crime," Nelson said.
He insisted, as he did during his trial testimony, that others were responsible for the killing of pastor Clint Dobson, 28, and the beating of the church secretary, Judy Eliott, who survived despite being left for dead.
Nelson said he was merely a lookout, standing outside NorthPointe Baptist Church while two companions were inside committing the robbery. One other man was arrested, then cleared by police.
"It was taking too long, so I came in," he said of the March 3, 2011, robbery-slaying. "Two people were on the ground and they were still alive."
He said he spotted a laptop computer and grabbed it, then began "looking for the satchel for the laptop." There was blood on the floor where he reached down, he said, accounting for the "itty-bitty dots (of blood) that were on my shoe."
DNA from the blood on his Air Jordan shoes, plus other evidence, tied him to the crime. Testimony showed Nelson stole the car belonging to the secretary.
When he arrived at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Byrd Unit in Huntsville, the first stop for inmates in the state corrections system before they reach death row outside Livingston in East Texas, Nelson said he surrendered a tiny key he'd concealed for 21 months while held in Tarrant County. It enabled him to remove handcuffs and ankle restraints when he was taken to a visiting area.
"They wondered why I kept getting out of my handcuffs," he said.
Texas prison officials said he'd hidden the key by attaching it to his genitals.
Nelson's criminal activity put him in various escalating levels of custody for most of his life.
"I really don't mean to make myself like a bad person but I committed my first adult crime when I was 6," Nelson said, referring to "burglary and stuff like that."
He chronicled a timeline of passing through juvenile custody in his native Oklahoma and Texas beginning in 1998, then stints with the Texas Youth Commission from 2001 to 2006 when he was released only to be recommitted a month later for another nine-month stay.
"I know I made bad choices as a preteen, as a teen, but I'm not a murderer," he said. "I have good traits about myself."
Gill responded, "Well, he's intelligent. It's a good trait. It's just a matter of how he chooses to use it. He chooses to use it in a very violent and criminally oriented fashion.
"I didn't notice any other good traits about him."