Crime & Courts

Judge sentences former Benedict football player for ‘brutal, predatory’ 5 Points rape

Police video of sexual assault suspect

Columbia police are looking for the man in this video in connection with a sexual assault in Five Points.
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Columbia police are looking for the man in this video in connection with a sexual assault in Five Points.

A woman stood up in a crowded Richland County courtroom.

“Please let me be the last victim of this man,” she told the judge.

Darius Nelson’s guilt was undeniable.

Friday, Nelson, a former Benedict football player and father of a daughter, pleaded guilty to what the prosecution described as a heinous predatory attack on a young woman.

In November 2017, police charged Nelson with kidnapping, aggravated assault and rape after he abducted a woman in Five Points, forcing her to a secluded alley behind a dumpster where he beat and sexually assaulted her.

Evidence of the crime left no questions about his guilt, the prosecution and Nelson’s defense told a judge in a crowded courtroom Friday. The victim, her family and friends, as well as Nelson’s family and supporters, sat through the emotional hearing.

The prosecution asked the judge for the maximum sentence of 80 years, and the victim pleaded for the same. The defense and Nelson’s relatives — along with Nelson himself — begged the judge for “leniency and mercy” in sentencing.

The sentence would hinge on which argument weighed most heavily on the judge. Was Nelson a wanton pariah, as the prosecution argued, or was he more than his crime, as the defense said — a good father who wanted to be a football coach and teacher who could be redeemed outside prison.

Public defender Robert Bank said he never saw a case where a person took such an irrational action against someone while having such good character before his crime.

Prosecutor Jessica Godwin of the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office said Nelson’s actions were “not a slip of judgment.”

“Once we realized how long he watched her, we don’t believe this is a crime of opportunity,” Godwin said.

The last good night

The victim was celebrating the purchase of her first car on Nov. 8, 2017, Godwin told the court. She was out with friends in Five Points where she worked and hung out. That night, she had left the area, then went back to wait for a friend to pick her up. That would be the last good night of her life for who knows how long, Godwin told the court.

Video evidence presented in court showed Nelson roaming Five Points. He groped two women in a bar and watched pornography on his phone, the prosecution said. When Nelson found the victim waiting for a ride, “he stalked her,” Godwin said.

Video showed Nelson sitting near the fountain in Five Points watching the victim. He checked his surroundings as he watched her. He left and came back to watch her longer. He sat near the victim, talked to her and rubbed her leg. He left and came back to her.

The victim thought Nelson was a someone she knew, Godwin said, before he carried her off behind a dumpster in a Five Points alley. In the video, you can see the fear in the victim’s eyes when she realized she didn’t recognize Nelson, Godwin told the court.

The court watched the assault video that showed the victim fighting back. The college football player viciously pummeled the victim until her arms went limp.

Columbia Police Department released video and photos of the then unknown attacker the week of the crime. Nelson saw the footage of himself on television when he was with a football teammate, Godwin said. The teammate later told police that when they saw the footage, Nelson said he was on TV.

Tips came in from Benedict personnel and others identifying Nelson as the attacker in the video and photos. When officers searched Nelson’s dorm room, they found the distinct screen-printed T-shirt as well as other clothing he wore the night of the crime. He admitted to police that he was in the photos and videos but denied being the person pictured on Saluda Street leading the victim, Godwin told the court.

Police charged Nelson and a judge denied him bond.

The victim was administered a rape kit, and DNA evidence was collected. That DNA was a match for Nelson, according to Godwin.

“This, I believe, was predatory,” Godwin said. “She still to this day, and I know she hates it, feels his knuckle in her face.”

That’s a pain no person should endure, the prosecutor told the judge.

‘Let me be the last victim’

The victim attested to the pain when she gave a statement to the court. She remembered the moment after being choked when she felt her mouth moving to yell “help” and “stop” but her voice no longer made any sound.

Through few tears, she told the court the attack irrevocably altered her life. She could no longer work in Five Points and still can’t have a job because of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She had to leave Columbia and couldn’t live alone.

After the assault, the trauma he inflicted led her to begin harming herself. She began ripping out her hair “like I was still fighting him.” She checked herself into a mental treatment facility.

Her life now revolves around recovering from emotional and physical wounds.

“This is five days a week if not more that I dedicate to try to rid the marks of this stranger and fade from my mind and my physical body,” she said. “I do not want to be in the same room as my attacker but I’m here to ensure the safety of our community. . . . I’m here to protect possible future victims.”

She asked the judge for the absolute maximum sentence.

“I don’t want anyone else to experience anything I’ve gone through or am still going through mentally and physically.”

Mercy

Nelson’s public defender, Robert Bank, offered what he admitted would be a hollow apology to the victim on behalf of Nelson, who stood before the judge shackled and at least a shoulder and head’s length above everyone in the court.

“The only thing that makes this any harder than it already is,” Bank told the court, “is that anyone of us in this courtroom could close our eyes, hear Darius’ life story and confuse him with our brothers, our sons, our husbands, our neighbor’s kids.”

Nelson had no criminal record before the attack, Bank said. He grew up in a town where everyone knew everyone and Nelson was known as a kid who played sports. He received a scholarship offer to attend South Carolina State, Bank said. He went to Georgia Military College instead but left the school to work and make money after his daughter was born.

“His life up until this point was the same as all the people who loved him,” Bank said.

One of those loved ones, Nelson’s mother Emlyn Williams, gave an emotional testimony in court saying her son grew up in the church and was “taught the things that are right and wrong.”

“Each and everyone loves their child,” Williams said. “The newborn baby you have expectations and you expect great things. Just as everyone loves their child, I love my child. … You hope and pray for things for your child that you teach and instill in them will stay with them.”

In one of the most compelling moments of the hearing, Williams turned and spoke directly to the victim saying, “If there’s anything I could humanly, possibly do to take (the attack and suffering) away, I would” and that she hoped the victim recovers.

“I hope that one day that scar will fade away,” Williams said.

The victim listened and offered a nod of her head in response.

Speaking again to the judge, Williams said her son was a good person who “made a terrible mistake.”

The defense asked the judge for leniency, mercy and a sentence that would allow for supervised released.

In an impassioned moment, Godwin offered a rebuttal, telling the court Nelson’s crime “was not a mistake” and he showed the victim “no mercy.”

What can’t be ignored

Judge DeAndrea Benjamin agreed with the defense that Nelson’s actions “seemed uncharacteristic of this young man.” She took into account the testimony in letters written by family and relations to Nelson.

She said she didn’t know what would make a young man commit such a horrible, brutal and predatory attack on a young woman.

Benjamin sentenced Nelson to 25 years for the rape, 25 years for kidnapping and 20 years for aggravated assault, nearly the maximum sentence. He also has to be a registered sex offender for life.

However, she ordered the years to run concurrently, meaning all the sentences would be served at the same time for a maximum of 25 years. Benjamin gave credit for the near 21 months Nelson was jailed and awaiting trial. He’ll have to serve 85% of the sentence by state law.

Nelson could appeal the ruling.

Benjamin said she read all the letters sent to her on Nelson’s behalf and considered those and his mother’s testimony, but said she could not ignore “the violence and predatory manner in which this attack occurred.”

DNA linked Nelson to another sexual assault on Greene Street in 2018, Columbia police have said. Charges are still pending in that case, court records show.

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.
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