On February 20, 1978, the body of 6-year-old Valerie Armstrong was found near her home in Savannah, Georgia. She had been raped, sodomized and stabbed to death.
Armstrong was last seen by her friend, 8-year-old Sabrina Williams, on the day before her body was found. Williams and Armstrong had been playing together, but parted ways when Armstrong went to the house of Alfonso “Uncle Al” Swinton, a man who was friendly with the neighborhood children and sometimes gave them money to buy candy. Williams saw a man working on a car in the backyard of Swinton’s house.
Though Swinton had faced previous suspicions of child molestation, police never pursued him as a suspect, focusing instead on Gary Nelson, Swinton’s roommate, who had had previous encounters with the police. Nelson was arrested May 26, 1978, but eventually released because the prosecution was still seeking a key witness. He was then indicted on October 3, 1979, and his trial began in February, 1980.
At trial, prosecutors called a police officer to the stand who testified that Sabrina Williams had “readily identified” Nelson in a photo lineup when asked to pick out the man she had seen fixing a car behind Swinton’s house; however, Williams also testified at trial and stated that Nelson was not the man she had seen. Prosecutors called a forensic scientist who claimed that an arm hair found at the scene matched Nelson’s hair. Nelson was represented by an attorney with no experience in death penalty cases, who put very little effort into the trial and failed to call witnesses who Nelson said would substantiate his claim that he was at a friend’s house at the time of the murder. Nelson was convicted and sentenced to death in 1980. On appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court in 1981, the conviction was upheld.
Shortly after the conviction, pro bono defense attorneys began investigating Nelson’s case, and discovered that prosecutors had withheld important exculpatory evidence from the defense, and that key witnesses for the prosecution had lied on the stand. According to police records, Williams had not “readily identified” Nelson from a line-up, but simply said he looked “something like” the man she’d seen. Defense attorneys also found an FBI report stating that the arm hair which supposedly matched Nelson was “not suitable for significant comparison purposes.” Based on this new evidence, the Georgia Supreme Court vacated Nelson’s conviction in June 1991. The district attorney decided not to retry the case, and Nelson was released on November 6, 1991.
- Alexandra Gross