Two deaths will be answered for in a trial only intended to account for one.
First, starting Monday, Steven Lawayne Nelson, a deeply troubled 25-year-old, will be tried for the murder of Clinton Dobson, a 28-year-old pastor at Arlington's NorthPointe Baptist Church. Second, and unofficially, should the trial move on to sentencing, Nelson will likely hear the testimony of the family of Jonathan Holden, an equally troubled though innocuous 30-year-old man who was found hanging by his neck from a blanket in a Tarrant County jail.
No charges have been filed by the Tarrant County District Attorney in Holden's death, but a Tarrant County Sheriff's Office investigation centered on Nelson. He was housed in the same pod as Holden, located inside the high-risk Belknap Unit. It made eminent good sense that Nelson, a man accused of the gravest of crimes -- an inveterate jailhouse brawler and troublemaker -- would be housed in Belknap. Why Holden ended up there is unclear. (Holden's life and death are explored in this week's feature, "Brother's Keeper.")
A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, Holden wandered away from his sister's home in North Richland Hills one morning in early March. By nightfall, as he walked the streets, the temperature was near freezing. He stole food from a Marriott in Westlake and broke into a car, whose owner found him huddled inside. Holden was transferred to the main jail in Fort Worth. Mental health assessors there quickly singled him out as "psychotic" and placed him in a suicide-prevention cell. A jail doctor later recommended his transfer to a separate pod on the same floor.
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Instead, he wound up in a different building altogether, housing a different kind of criminal. He ended up in Belknap, with Nelson. Jailers found Holden hanging from the cell bars. He wasn't breathing, and his heart wasn't beating. After 35 minutes of chest compressions, he had a pulse, but he died at the hospital. Holden's sister Jennifer Ciravolo didn't find out about his death until months later, after he had already been buried in an unmarked grave for the county's unclaimed dead.
I could never get a clear answer from the sheriff's office as to how Holden landed in Belknap. Chief Deputy Mike Simonds said he didn't know much about inmate classification and movement, so he passed me along to Chief Alan Dennis, the head of confinement for Tarrant County. But he never responded to my repeated messages left with his secretary and on his voice mail.
This single, unanswered question is everything to Ciravolo. It's why it won't be easy to take the stand at sentencing and give a full-throated condemnation of Steven Nelson, if he is in fact convicted. Because she doesn't really blame him. She doesn't blame him any more than you'd blame a mad dog set loose by its owner.
She told me time and again, until the framework of her loss and her anger was crystalline. She blames those who placed her brother within a killer's reach. That is what she wants to say on the witness stand, even if it isn't what the prosecutor wants to hear.