Stephen Todd Nelson pleaded guilty Tuesday to second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death for killing his 3-year-old son, Turner, by throwing the boy off the Key Bridge on Super Bowl Sunday in 2008.
The two convictions each carry a 30-year maximum sentence, though Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters agreed to limit the term to 50 years. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 28.
"It gives me a whole lot of closure, a whole lot," the boy's mother, Natisha Johnson, said outside the courtroom. Prosecutors consulted her before making the deal, essentially giving Johnson "veto power" over any arrangement, said Julie Drake, division chief in the Felony Family Violence Division within the Baltimore state's attorney's office.
An earlier plan for Nelson to plead guilty solely to second-degree murder was rejected Monday by a different judge, who sent the parties to Peters for trial. They worked out the new deal in concert. Robert Linthicum, one of Nelson's lawyers, called it a "fair agreement."
Nelson, who was charged with first-degree murder and related crimes, had previously filed a not-criminally-responsible plea in the case, after telling Maryland Transportation Authority Police that "demons" made him kill his child. The NCR plea, Maryland's equivalent to pleading insanity, forced the state's hand.
"The most important factor … was to assure that the defendant be committed to the Department of Corrections and not the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene," Drake said in a interview. "We did not want to watch a jury find the defendant not criminally responsible. He would have gone to a mental hospital. … He wouldn't have spent another day in jail."
Nelson attempted suicide after killing his son, and the defense submitted several sealed psychiatric evaluations to the court and planned to call experts to testify about Nelson's mental health if they had gone to trial. But Nelson withdrew the NCR plea as a condition of the agreement, and both sides yesterday said they were confident that he was competent.
Defense Attorney Angela Shelton added that Nelson had "suffered a stroke" around the time of the murder, however, which is likely to be introduced as a factor during sentencing.
According to an agreed-upon statement of facts, which Drake read aloud in court, Nelson had an "extremely contentious" relationship with Turner's mother, who had left Nelson soon after the boy's birth.
Nelson was watching their son on Feb. 3, 2008 — Super Bowl Sunday — and was supposed to return the boy to Johnson that night, though she asked if she could pick him up him earlier, before or during the game.
Nelson hung up on her, then called back later, cryptically telling her he wouldn't allow another man to raise their child.
An hour later, he called again, saying "Me and Turner aren't coming home. We're going to die tonight." In the next call, he said he went to the Key Bridge, "took [Turner] out of his car seat" and threw him over the railing. And in the final call, he said he had killed their son.
"It's all your fault, you're going to have to live with this," Nelson told Turner's mother — a cruel statement that Drake abhors.
"We do not want him shifting responsibility away from his own choice," she said in the interview. "Demons didn't choose this; he did."
Drake plans to recommend that Nelson serve his time at the Patuxent Institution, a mental health facility within the Department of Corrections.