Steven Nelson was someone who always tried to turn others away from hate and toward love, according to his family.
On April 29, 2016, Nelson was the victim of one of the most brutal hate crimes in recent Canyon County history.
Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Wednesday sentenced the 23-year-old Nampa man guilty of beating Nelson to death to 28 years in prison in a federal hate crime case.
Kelly Schneider and three other men lured the 49-year-old Nelson to Gott’s Point near Lake Lowell last year, and Schneider kicked Nelson in the head with steel-toed boots, robbed him, stole his vehicle, stripped him naked and left him for dead. Nelson died shortly afterward of cardiac arrest.
Earlier this month, Schneider was sentenced in Canyon County to life in prison, with 28 years fixed, after pleading guilty to first-degree murder. The federal sentence will be concurrent to the Canyon County sentence.
Schneider’s co-defendants – Kevin Tracy, Jayson Woods and Daniel Henkel – were not charged with a federal hate crime but were charged in Canyon County.
Who was Steven Nelson?
Victim impact statements from Nelson’s parents and his four siblings outlined his compassion and character for nearly an hour in court. The statements were similar to the those made in 3rd District Court before District Judge Thomas Ryan, explaining Nelson’s hopes, compassion and love.
Nelson’s father, Edgar Nelson, explained that Nelson faced harassment as a teenager for being gay.
“I pointed out to him once that he had chosen a difficult lifestyle,” Edgar Nelson said. “He said to me, ‘It wasn’t chosen, it’s just the way I am.’ ”
Edgar Nelson outlined his son’s work ethic, love for his family, daily calls to his mother and how courageous Steven was on the day of his death.
“Because he was gay, the hatred of another person was poured out upon him in a manner we cannot believe,” Edgar Nelson said.
Crime and punishment
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Lucoff noted that a 28-year sentence represents both society’s condemnation of what happened to Nelson and its condemnation of hate crimes, specifically those based upon a person’s sexual orientation.
“I thought about what I would tell people 10 years from now, 20 years from now, about what this case represents,” Lucoff told the judge prior to sentencing. “... What I came up with was this: Serious criminal punishment represents society’s strong condemnation of what that offender has done.”
Schneider was charged with the hate crime in federal court because Idaho law does not include a person’s sexual orientation as a motive to commit malicious harassment.
The federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes willfully causing injury or death based on a protected status such as the victim’s race, religion or sexual orientation.
One of Nelson’s brothers told Winmill in court that he thought it was important that Schneider be charged with the hate crime, on top of the murder charge, “to recognize this crime as a violation of his civil right to be openly gay.”
Defense attorney Dick Rubin outlined Schneider’s turbulent childhood and a history of mental illness as he spoke to the judge on Wednesday. Schneider reportedly suffered abuse in childhood and his mother was a victim of violence while his father struggled with drug addiction.
By the time he was 5, Schneider was showing signs of violence. By age 9, Schneider was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility, where he was diagnosed with depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Rubin said that just as Nelson did not choose to be gay, Schneider did not choose his childhood circumstances. After Nelson’s family outlined how compassionate Nelson was, Rubin said, “I wonder if he wouldn’t feel just a little bit of compassion for Kelly.”
Schneider was in a juvenile corrections center from age 16 to 18 and a state prison from age 19 to 22. He had been out on parole for about five months when Nelson was murdered.
Schneider apologized to the victim’s family in court.
“I’m truly sorry for the pain and suffering I’ve put your family through,” Schneider said as he turned to look at the Nelsons. “There’s nothing I can ever do to make it up.”
He faced the judge and said he was ready to accept responsibility.
“I don’t think my juvenile history or the problems and the things I went through as a juvenile should have any bearing on the act that I committed almost a year ago,” Schneider told the judge. “That’s I feel like a cop-out, it’s an excuse, and it’s pure stupidity to use that to my own benefit.”
Woods, 28, of Nampa, was sentenced this month to 23 years to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery and accepting the earnings of a prostitute. He is the “mastermind” behind the attack and engineered the plan to lure Nelson out in order to rob him.
Henkel, 23, of Wilder, and Tracy, 21, of Nampa, are accused of standing by to help Schneider in case Nelson fought back. Both are set for sentencing on May 1 after pleading guilty to aiding and abetting robbery.