Bruce Nelson (Allegheny County, Pennsylvania)

Factual background. Two men stole a van and drove to a parking garage in the hopes of committing a robbery. They accosted a woman when she came into the garage and forced her into the van. The two men allegedly sexually assaulted the woman repeatedly, pulled out a knife, and choked the woman to death with a piece of cloth.

Those details of the incident are available only through the testimony of Terrence Moore following his arrest for the rape-murder. He confessed but testified that Bruce Nelson was the one who initiated the crimes and forced the victim into the van and killed her.

Nelson, already in prison on unrelated charges, was arrested. Police had Moore confront Nelson with his confession. During this confrontation, Nelson reportedly asked Moore, “What did you tell them?” Moore reportedly responded, “I told them everything.”

Bruce Nelson was convicted of rape and murder in an Allegheny County jury trial. The district court sentenced him to life in prison for the murder and 10 to 20 years for the rape, to run concurrently with the life sentence.

Prosecutor’s evidence at trial. Evidence was provided at trial that showed Moore’s fingerprints on the victim’s purse. Saliva from the woman’s breast and bra was consistent with Moore’s saliva. Saliva found on a cigarette butt at the scene was also consistent with Moore’s saliva. Hairs found on the victim and her clothing were consistent with Moore’s. The hairs, saliva, and fingerprints were not consistent with those of Nelson. The prosecution based its case against Nelson on two points:

  • The testimony of Terrence Moore named Nelson as the initiator of the crimes and as the murderer.
  • The statement by Nelson, “What did you tell them?” was entered into evidence as a confession.

Postconviction challenges. Nelson filed a habeas corpus petition stating that the submittal of his confrontation with the other defendant, Terrence Moore, violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Nelson also claimed a violation of his Fifth Amendment right to “restrictions on custodial interrogation of suspects who have invoked their right to silence.” The district court denied his petition and his certificate for probable cause for appeal. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to review the case.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit granted Nelson’s probable cause petition and reviewed his claims de novo. On August 17, 1990, the circuit court affirmed the district court’s rejection of Nelson’s Sixth Amendment claim but reversed its Fifth Amendment decision and remanded the case to the district court for further review (911 F.2d 928).

DNA results. On remand, the prosecution obtained DNA tests to prepare for a new trial. The results of DNA tests excluded Nelson as the assailant.

Conclusion. On the basis of the results of the DNA testing, Nelson was cleared of all charges on August 28, 1991. He had served 9 years of his sentence.

This case profile is excerpted from Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial, a 1996 research report by the U.S. Department of Justice.