FORT WORTH – An inmate testified in court Wednesday that he saw the man convicted of killing an Arlington pastor strangle a fellow prisoner to death in his jail cell with a blanket –– and a forensics analyst told the jury his DNA was found under the victim's nails.
Steven Lawayne Nelson, 25, was found guilty on Monday of capital murder in the case of Clint Dobson, a 28-year-old reverend at Arlington's NorthPointe Baptist Church who was brutally beaten and choked to death with the plastic liner of a trashcan in March 2011.
Wednesday marked the second full day of testimony in the sentencing phase of Nelson’s trial. Prosecutors are pushing for the death penalty and attempting to paint Nelson as a violent threat. Much of the testimony centered around the death of a prisoner, which the prosecution argued Nelson was responsible for.
The prosecution called an inmate to the stand who said he witnessed Nelson strangle another inmate in his jail cell for nearly four minutes until the man stopped breathing. The judge asked reporters not to identify the witness to protect him from retaliation in prison.
Jonathan Holden was found dead in his cell. Guards initially thought the death was a suicide –– Holden was found with a blanket wrapped around his neck, hanging from the cell. His life and death is detailed in length in this Dallas Observer cover story.
Nelson used a broomstick to torment Holden in his cell. Holden appeared to be mentally challenged, the inmate said, and often mumbled under his breath to himself.
The witness testified that Nelson convinced Holden to let him stage a suicide attempt so the guards would arrive and remove him from his cell. The jury was shown a photo of where Holden was found: a room of single cells with bars that face each other with a narrow common area between them.
The witness said Nelson was in the common area and Holden was in his cell. Initially, the witness testified that Holden let Nelson reach his hands through his cell to wrap the blanket around his neck. But then Holden began to struggle –– the witness said Nelson pulled hard enough to lift the inmate off his feet with the blanket.
The witness testified that Nelson choked Holden for four minutes and then checked his eyes to make sure he was dead. Nelson then celebrated with a dance, the witness said, playing the broomstick as if it were a guitar.
None of the inmates in the area triggered a panic button, the witness included. A guard arrived 11 minutes later, the witness said.
Upon his arrival, the guard saw Holden hanging and fell to his knees. The jailer later testified he was called way to relieve a colleague at the time of Holden’s death. Defense attorneys later quizzed the jail guard, attempting to raise doubt that Nelson was responsible.
The confinement sergeant also testified that Holden’s death appeared to be a suicide and was classified as such. The inmate said he wrote a note that said "MURDER" and attempted to get the attention of the guards.
An autopsy performed by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner later ruled Holden’s death a homicide. The case is still under investigation and no charges have been filed. DNA analyst Connie Patton told the court Nelson's DNA was found under Holden's fingernails.
Jurors were shown photographs of Holden's body. His face was bruised.
If Nelson is not sentenced to death, he must serve life in prison without parole.