Killer Steven Lawayne Nelson Calms Down on Death Row -- For Now

Last time we checked in with Steven Lawayne Nelson, the scent of flame retardant and his screams were carried into the courtroom shortly after the jury handed him a death sentence. In October, the 25-year-old convicted killer of a beloved, young Arlington preacher -- and suspect in the murder of a mentally ill Tarrant County inmate -- flooded his holding cell and soaked the courtroom carpet in his rage.

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Nelson thrived in chaos. Whether he was dousing fellow inmates in an excrement solution, brawling with guards or swimming a breast-stroke in the shallow pools of a rec room he had flooded, destruction and violence were his outlets. On Death Row, to be sure, he has fewer of them.

Has severe isolation reined him in? The Associated Press, apparently, was curious about how the notoriously disruptive Nelson passes the time these days. A reporter paid him a visit.

For starters, he gave up a small key he used repeatedly to get out of his cuffs and anklets in the visiting area. Nelson carried it throughout his stay in Tarrant County, and kept it hidden from jailers by attaching it to his genitals. Houdini reborn was not, in fact, in a Fort Worth jail, in case any of the guards were wondering. But apart from that incredible piece of contraband, however, his stay on Death Row has been fairly uneventful.

Now, before we go hailing Nelson as the inmate of the year, the man who prosecuted him tells the AP he isn't at all convinced. Nelson hasn't turned over a new leaf, he says. He's simply biding his time. "As soon as he gets any indication of an opportunity, he will be violent again," prosecutor Bob Gill says. "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."

Of course, that opportunity may arise again if Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon Jr. decides to prosecute him for the alleged murder of Jonathan Holden, 30, a mentally ill inmate. During Nelson's sentencing, an inmate in the cell across from Holden testified to witnessing Nelson strangle him with a blanket. Holden had been arrested for breaking into a car, likely to stay warm. His life was the subject of a recent cover story. We reached out to the district attorney's office and we'll update if we hear from them.

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Brantley Hargrove