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Gary Nelson

Other Georgia Cases
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 8-year-old friend, known as S.W., on the day before her body was found.  S.W. 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.  S.W. 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 S.W. 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, S.W. also testified at trial and stated that Nelson was not the man she had seen.  Prosecutors called a forensic scientist, Roger Parian, who claimed that an arm hair found at the scene matched Nelson’s hair. Parian said the arm hair could only have come from 120 people in the area.  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, S.W. had not “readily identified” Nelson from a line-up, but simply said he looked “something like” the man she’d seen.  Defense attorneys also discovered that Parian had not even examined the hair. He had sent it to the FBI laboratory for examination. And, the defense 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

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 10/24/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Sexual Assault, Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:1978
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No