"At times I feel like I deserve forgiveness, that I'm redeemable..."
- Union Correctional Institution Death Row inmate #0-989102
He may only be 38 years of age, but Joshua David Nelson has spent more than half of his life on Death Row in Florida. He’s waited for two decades to be killed by the state for what he did on the 10th of March 1995. His crime? The brutal and bloody murder of his friend, Tommy Evans.
Joshua Nelson’s father was a violent drunk. He was a lousy, abusive husband and even lousier and more abusive father. When he finally left Joshua and his mother the future should have looked bright for them. Instead, it was nothing but darkness for Josh, his mother and everyone they knew. As a young teenager he, like so many other Death Row inmates, got mixed up in alcohol, drugs, delinquency and petty crime. One incident saw him arrested and taken to a youth offender rehabilitation centre. There he would meet a kid of the same age called Keith Brennan. The two hit it off immediately.
Once out and ‘rehabilitated’, the two teens hung out constantly. They would steal together, get drunk together and smoke weed together. They even dated two sisters. As a team, the two of them planned to better their lives, get some money and a car and split. With the girls, they’d drive off into the sunset and start a new life somewhere in the northeast. The money and car, they planned, would come from a mutual friend of theirs. Tommy Evans.
The only trouble was… They’d have to kill him first.
Under the pretence of meeting someone for a deal of some kind of other, Keith and Josh convinced Tommy to drive them out to an abandoned building somewhere remote in Lee County. Their plan wasn’t sophisticated or particularly well thought-out, but it was simple and straightforward. Josh would beat Tommy about the head with the baseball bat that Tommy kept in the back seat until he was knocked out. Then Keith would ‘finish him off’. With the bat and a box cutter in their hands, that’s exactly what happened.
Five minutes later the boys were speeding off in Tommy Evans’ white Ford Probe. Leaving his battered and bruised body tied up and face down in the dirt, his throat slashed.
They drove to pick up their girlfriends. When the sisters saw Tommy’s car, they knew something was up. But it wasn’t until they were halfway to New Jersey that Keith filled them in on exactly what had happened. The four’s ‘big escape’ from Florida was now caked in the blood of their friend Tommy. Less than a week later the girls would call 911 and Joshua Nelson and Keith Brennan were arrested for the first-degree and pre-meditated murder of Tommy Evans. Both immediately confessed fully to what had happened.
Brennan was technically a minor at the time, so the death sentence couldn’t be applied to him, so he received a sentence of Life. Joshua, however, was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
The four’s ‘big escape’ from Florida was now caked in the blood of their friend Tommy
Tommy’s car was nice and the money the two boys stole from him helped in their getaway, but that’s not all that much of a motive, is it? A vehicle and a handful of dollars? Could it really be that basic and simple? Perhaps. But maybe there’s more to the story. The jury weren’t offered much in the way of motive or reasoning for the crime. Dig around into the backgrounds of Brennan and Nelson though - at their situations - and a few things come to light that might just help explain their actions that night...
Does a motive make murder acceptable? Obviously not. Does a motive help understand why a murder took place, though? Absolutely. Can we perhaps learn from what drives people to kill? Let’s hope so.
So what drove these two boys to beat Tommy Evans half to death, hogtied him with shoelaces and slit his neck from ear to ear with a boxcutter? Like he was some kind of pig. Well, Nelson and Brennan were both powder kegs. Individually there was just angry kids. But together they tapped into each other’s rage and it materialised in the most ferocious way imaginable.
Consider these two factors:
i) The day of the murder Josh had been kicked out of home by his mother after his manipulative stepfather orchestrated his eviction. The same manipulative stepfather that had sexually abused him constantly for years.
ii) A few days before the murder, Keith’s girlfriend Tina needed to use a payphone to call Keith. Tommy saw her and offered her use of his car phone. She accepted. He needed to drive a way up the road to get signal, or so he told her. In reality, she says he drove them out to a piece of disused land and sexually assaulted her. She told her sister some days later. Her sister told her boyfriend Josh… Who then told Keith. Understandably, the boys were angry. Even angrier than before.
Do these reasons, these motives, these excuses mean that Tommy Evans’ family should forgive Joshua Nelson and Keith Brennan? No, not at all.
Do these reasons, motives and excuses mean that the boys - now men - are redeemable? Well, it’s hard to say. The state of Florida certainly doesn’t seem to think so.
Do these reasons, motives and excuses humanise tragedy and prove that crime isn’t always Good vs. Evil, that’s it’s often just lost and damaged people lashing out and causing untold chaos in every direction? Undoubtedly.
Listen to the producers discuss the making of the series in the official podcast.