The family of a murdered 10-year-old girl wants changes to death penalty laws

PALM HARBOR, Fla. - Earlier this week, I did a story on Elisa Nelson. A little girl, killed more than 32 years ago by a sexual predator on parole.

Elisa was only 10 years old when she died. She was biking to her Palm Harbor school after a dentist appointment when she was grabbed.

Forensic evidence proved Elisa fought off a sexual attack by fighting back. But the man who took her, Larry Mann killed her.

The state executed 59-year-old Mann on Wednesday at Florida State Prison in Raiford.

I covered the execution. Her brother, Jeff Nelson, who was only 12 at the time, read a moving statement. I could only provide a portion for our 11 p.m. newscast.

The following is his statement in it's entirety:

First, we would like to thank all of the friends, family and even complete strangers who have offered us their thoughts, prayers and support over the last 32+ years.  We would also like to thank the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department, the FDLE, and the State Attorney's Office for their tireless pursuit of justice for Elisa as well as the Victim Services Program for keeping us informed of this case's progress through the legal system.  And finally we would like to thank Governor Rick Scott for having the courage to follow the laws of the State of Florida even when they require difficult choices.  

However, it is glaringly apparent that there is something fundamentally flawed with a justice system that takes over 32 years to bring to justice, a pedophile who confessed to kidnapping and murdering a 10 year old girl.  Elisa was only in our lives for less than 3,800 days and yet this pedophile and his lawyers have spent nearly 12,000 days (over three times her entire life) making a mockery of our legal system.  It makes no sense to us how a man can admit to a crime as terrible as this one, be found guilty for that crime, then be able to argue for 32 years that he didn't get a fair trial. Where's the logic in that?

There are no winners here. His death does not bring Elisa back nor does it end our sorrow, but we will no longer be tortured by his defense attorneys' endless legal wrangling or seeing his picture in the paper.  Although, we must admit, there is a profound sense of relief at being able lay down at least a small piece of the weight we have been carrying. 

We would give anything to still have Elisa in our lives. We didn't ask to be a part of this and there are times when we wish we could just wake up and this will all have just been a bad dream, but we know better.  We have been forced to spend the last 32 years listening to what a great person Larry Mann was but we want to tell you a little bit about Elisa.

Elisa Vera Nelson was a bright, funny, caring, beautiful little girl-

·         She was born in Greenville, Michigan on July 7, 1970

·         She grew up in Largo, then Palm Harbor, Florida

·         She attended Mildred Helms Elementary, Ozona Elementary and Palm Harbor Middle

·         She turned the age of 7 on 7/7/77

·         She was a Girl Scout (we still have her sash)

·         She played Little League Baseball at Dunedin National (and was one of the best on her team full of boys)

-         She took in every stray pet she found

·         She donated her own money to the MDA telethon because she wanted to help others

·         She loved horses (she dreamed of saving up her money to buy a horse and naming it Black Beauty)

·         She loved to play teacher (we had a chalkboard in our house where she would conduct class with neighborhood kids)

·         She loved cheerleading

·         She loved to dance

·         She loved to sing

- in a few horrifying moments it was all taken away by an evil man who had previous convictions for abducting a 7 year old girl from a church parking lot and was out on parole for threatening to kill a 1 year old baby if the babysitter didn't do what he wanted.

When he met Elisa on the day that irreparably altered so many lives, he had been waiting in a school zone, looking for his next victim.  When he saw her, she was less than 100 yards from the safety of Palm Harbor Middle School.  He hit her with his pickup truck to knock her off her bike.  One can only imagine the ferocity of the battle that took place in the cab of his.  The beating she took resulted in her hair and blood being left everywhere…as well as the note our mother had written for her tardiness because she had gotten her braces put on her teeth that morning.  She fought so hard he could only take her less than a mile from her school.  He was so enraged that he had to pull over at an abandoned orange grove and drag her from the truck (ironically, the same orange grove where the new Palm Harbor Middle School now stands).  He grabbed an old vine from a nearby tree and tried to bind her hands so she couldn't resist.  But still she fought.  By now he realized he wasn't going to get what he wanted so he would have to kill her.  He cut her throat twice, hoping she would bleed to death.  She didn't; but she kept trying to crawl away.  When she wouldn't die fast enough, he picked up a pipe with a block of concrete on the end and crushed her skull. 

In less than a few minutes it was over and our lives would be changed forever.

Not a day goes by that we don't think about Elisa.  Unfortunately, no matter what sparks the memory, whether it is the recollection of an inside joke, a song on the radio, or stumbling across an old photograph, our thoughts ultimately race towards those last few horrifying moments of her life and how she must have felt.

What was she thinking as she lay there defenseless on the ground, with the life running out of her?  How terrified must this little girl have been?  Could she see that this monster was about to crush her child size skull because she wouldn't die?  Those are the images that come to mind whenever we think about Elisa. 

Imagine what it is like to have these thoughts echo through your head every day and you are helpless to do anything about it.  Any parent who has lived through something as terrible as this, is going to be consumed by the guilt that they could have and should have done something to prevent it.  Nothing is ever going to lessen those feelings.  It is said that no parent should ever have to bury their child; but knowing how your child dies, be it in an abandoned orange grove, in a canal in the everglades or in a garbage bag under a trailer, when the circumstances are as horrific as this, the pain is so raw and searing that unless you have lived it, you can't fully understand it. To then be dragged through 32 years of a legal quagmire it makes it even worse.

Recently, we have been inundated with requests for interviews regarding how the last 32 years have been so we decided to share some thoughts.  In the beginning the milestones were difficult.  Her "Sweet 16" party she never got to have; her first Homecoming and Prom dates that never happened; her would-have-been high school and college graduation days came and passed with an uncomfortable silence.  My mother never got to help her plan her wedding; my father never got to walk her down the aisle.  The birth of her children that we never got to meet (my nieces and nephews, my children's cousins, my parents' grand-children).  Can you envision sitting down with your parents and having a discussion like "if Elisa were alive she would be … now?"  Imagine the pain of having to answer the question "Daddy, who's the little girl in the picture?" coming from another little girl who bears a striking resemblance to her, followed by "what happened to her and how come I haven't met her?"

Every year her birthday and the anniversary of her murder come and go but it never really gets any easier.  Even now, we find ourselves revisiting all of those milestones and grieving once again for a young life lost. 

I struggle with trying to protect my daughters from the harsh realities of the world versus telling them the truth.  I want them to experience the innocence of childhood that was taken from me; but they need to know to be careful because there is evil in the world.  I pray that I don't pass my burden on to my children, yet at every dance recital and soccer game I think about Elisa.  With every story about Carlie Brucia, Jessica Lunsford, or any of the growing number of child victims, we relive our own nightmare.  And through all of this, we as a society have still not done enough to better protect our children than we were doing over 30 years ago.

This pedophile admitted that he killed Elisa.  There has never been a question about guilt or innocence.  Several juries of his peers decided that his crime was so heinous that he should die for it.  Yet some Florida Legislators think (and some editorial boards agree) that there is a "Flaw" in the legal system because Florida does not require unanimous jury recommendations in Capital Cases.  Have they not been paying attention for the last 32 years?  Even in this horrific case, the jury recommendation for death was only 9-3.  The real "flaw" is that defense lawyers can stall in filing their appeal, can literally make something up, throw it against a wall and hope that it sticks.  Then because some judges are under no obligation to make timely rulings we are further victimized by an ineffective judicial system.

The State of Florida and the Federal Government both need legislative and judicial reform that protects the convicted murder's rights to Due Process while, at the same time, expediting justice by eliminating legal "gamesmanship" and establishing strict timelines for appeals and rulings that are unnecessarily delaying the process.  It only took six years to bring Timothy McVay to justice in the Federal court system.  If we as a society are sincere in our claim that our children are our most precious resource, maybe we should consider making the abduction and murder of a child a Federal crime.

For the last 12,000 days there have been arguments about pieces of paper that have no bearing on the facts in this case, how he kneels in prayer every day, how he paints, how he is remorseful for his actions (he had a chance today to apologize face-to-face with my father, but instead when asked if he had any final words chose to say "no sir") and how he is a changed man, undeserving of such a cruel fate.  And through it all, there is never any deliberation about what he did to Elisa in that orange grove on that November morning. 

Instead, we have had to listen defense attorneys vilify Elisa's mother because her mere presence in the court room "may have" intimidated the jury and the judge into sentencing him to death; that she "may have" used her influence to intimidate the Governor into signing the Death Warrant; that her quest for justice for her murdered daughter and her fight for Victim's Rights in the State of Florida "may have" violated Larry Mann's Civil Rights and Due Process.  What was she supposed to do? The Nelson women are fighters.  Larry Mann learned that the hard way and he paid with his life, permanently deterred from harming another soul.  In 1995, the St. Petersburg Times told of a Canadian couple who had committed some of their country's worst kidnappings, rapes, and murders.  The wife, Karla Homolka, testified under oath that they had planned to do the same to a woman they met at Walt Disney World but decided not to, in fear of Florida's Death Penalty.  At least one young lady lives, and who knows how many others also live because the Death Penalty does deter.

We can't help but think that Elisa, Carlie and Jessica might still be alive today had the state long ago sent the message to those that prey upon our weakest and most defenseless: We value our children and if you hurt them, you will pay the ultimate price.  If just one child is allowed to grow up because someone thinks twice about that penalty, isn't it worth it?   It is to us.

Larry Mann alone made the decisions that dragged us all into this Hell.  We certainly did not ask to be a part it.  He alone set in motion the wheels of his own destruction.   The world is now a better place without him.

After 32 years, we can finally close this chapter in our lives but all of us should be concerned for the families coming through the system behind us and the legal nightmare they are going to have to endure. 

It shouldn't have to be like this.

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